Wikipedia’s copyright

A freely licensed adventure 2015-12-22

Today, stories of high school students pasting in content from Wikipedia into their own essays and research projects abound. Some educators have thrown their hands up in the air, baffled by this whole “Internet” thing. Others have clamped down, forbidding the use of Wikipedia in the classroom and calling it an irrelevant information source.

While this plagiarism from Wikipedia may seem like child’s play, serious legal issues also play a part. As I’ve covered in this blog, Wikipedia content is not released into the public domain — by default, all content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, and the copyright remains under the ownership of each contributor.

This is further complicated by the fact that some contributors choose to unilaterally license their contributions under a freer license, such as into the public domain. Some users have also chosen to “dual-license” their contributions, under, say, the GFDL and the CC-BY-SA. These license indications are not shown on the contributions themselves; each user who decides to do this usually places this information on their “user page.”

There have been a number of cases in which individuals or groups have lifted Wikipedia content without attribution of any kind, essentially committing copyright infringement. One recent case was the case of George Orwel (sic.), a New York-based reporter who pasted a substantial amount of content from a Wikipedia article into his book, “Black Gold: The New Frontier in Oil for Investors.”

What complicated this matter was that the user who contributed a large portion of the text, Ydorb, had licensed his contributions into the public domain. Therefore, it would seem that this act of “plagiarism” was, in fact, lawful (albeit troubling coming from an experienced reporter). However, the nature of Wikipedia’s collaborative and cumulative editing meant that portions that had been contributed by other users, who unlike Ydorb had not released their contributions to the public domain, were still under their copyright. This is an issue present in all wikis — because content is not simply written by one user and left at that, the ownership of specific bits of text, rather than entire articles, becomes important.

While it may be easy for people (even reporters) to become complacent about Wikipedia copyright, the bottom line is that every contribution to Wikipedia is still covered by the same copyright that automatically covers any other creative work. A free license is not a license to do whatever you want; there are certain bounds, and users need to be educated about this.