Wikimedia Commons mission: free media for the world or only Wikimedia projects?
- Three weeks ago, the Signpost ran an article on the Wikimedia Commons entitled "Wikimedia chapters and communities challenge Commons' URAA policy". Non-US editors and chapters have taken issue with a multitude of image deletions done to comply with the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, a US law that brought the country into compliance with the Berne Convention. By doing so, they granted or regranted copyright protection to several works that have entered the public domain in their countries of origin. Many supporters of these actions have noted that the deletions ensure that images on the Commons are free for all to use, not just users in some countries, while one opposer characterized the actions as a "extremist interpretation of an intra-American affair."
- We asked three users for their perspective on a related issue: is the Commons primarily a repository of free media for the world, as stated on its welcome page, or should it limit itself to being a media repository for the various Wikimedia projects?
Delirium: a distinction without a difference
To me the question of whether Wikimedia Commons is primarily a repository of free media for the world, or primarily a media repository for the Wikimedia projects, should ideally be a distinction without a difference. I'm primarily active in Wikipedia, not on Commons, and I visit Commons mostly in its "supporting role" when I need to add images to Wikipedia articles. But we all have the goal of producing free content for the world. Copyright law is a mess with a lot of gray area, so in practice things aren't ideal, and different groups of Wikimedians may have different views of how to navigate the morass. But I think the goals are, or should be, the same: to produce free content that's reusable, remixable, and republishable (in theory and in actual practice), by ourselves and others, to spread knowledge worldwide. To that end, a media repository for the Wikimedia projects should also be a repository of free media, and work to fulfill both roles!
I personally am not very active on Commons, and mainly edit Wikipedia. But I nonetheless find Commons to support the mission of the other projects very well. In its support role for Wikipedia, I find Commons' close attention to being a "repository of free media for the world" quite valuable. I live in Denmark, and for various reasons I want to reuse excerpts of the English Wikipedia. Unfortunately for me, the English Wikipedia makes extensive use of U.S.-specific copyright exceptions, such as the pre-1923 rule and American fair-use law. So, articles need to have their media sanitized to be safe to reuse in Denmark. Here is a simple semi-automated heuristic I use: if any image is hosted at Commons, keep it; if an image is locally hosted on en.wikipedia.org, flag it for review or replacement. In effect I defer to the vetting of the Commons community for copyright review of media. This works fairly well, and helps me reuse content from Wikipedia. So from my own perspective, I find the mission of Commons to provide a free media repository for the world very much in line with its mission to support the other Wikimedia projects. Many projects are a bit loose on verifying the actual free-content reusability of their images, but Commons takes that job seriously, greatly enhancing the reusability of all Wikimedia projects.
- Mark Nelson is a professor at the IT University of Copenhagen. He has been a Wikipedian and an administrator on the English Wikipedia since 2003.
TeleComNasSprVen: optimistic about receding CoI
Wikimedia Commons’ mission is, as its tagline suggests, to provide "a database of 20,536,186 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute". However, Wikimedia Commons is also hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, and I believe was originally set up in order to serve as a centralized database of media content to be served to all the various language editions of Wikipedia. With respect to the WMF, the mission of Commons therefore stands in a conflict of interest; originally designed by Wikimedians, its first responsibility was also for Wikimedians. With the advent of InstantCommons however, now all wikis regardless of their affiliation with Wikimedia could access the large database of freely licensed files at Commons by merely installing a simple extension. Commons now serves more than the Wikimedia Foundation, it serves a wide variety of public wiki-based organizations as well. Like Wikipedia, which caters its main content to the public in the form of encyclopedic articles, Commons serves to cater its main content to the public in the form of a wide range of freely licensed and freely accessible media files.
There is still a rather large pro-WMF bias prevalent around Wikimedia Commons however. There is a common misconception that Commons serves as central repository for any kind of free media file. However, Commons frequently rejects or deletes files that do not comply with the CC-BY-SA guidelines, or files considered outside the scope of the project, defined at Commons:Project scope. Files that are vaguely licensed as "free for use" or "use on Wikipedia" are sometimes rejected/deleted, and files which serve no educational purpose (a rather vague and much debated criterion) are also nominated for deletion at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Deletion_requests. For the purpose of Commons, "excluded content serving no educational purpose" are typically "vanity" files, images of non-notable companies (here the bias towards Wikipedia’s notability criterion shows), and, barring obvious educational potential, pages that are not in use on any other Wikimedia project. Even if a media file were freely licensed, Commons sometimes rejects/deletes the file submissions, and asks its uploaders to use other free file-sharing or file-hosting websites for their own purposes instead, such as Flickr or Picasa which might be more willing to accept such images.
Like any of the big Wikimedia wikis, Wikimedia Commons suffers from its own various problems, some of which are easily solvable and some which are not. At least with the advent of the InstantCommons MediaWiki extension, I am optimistic that Commons is moving further away from its dependence as a primarily Wikimedia site to one which can better serve a more global community. It is hoped that while Commons considers its host, the Wikimedia Foundation, important in running its day-to-day activities, and Wikimedians for supplying some of its content, Commons can also achieve its designed primary purpose as "a database of 20,536,186 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute".
- TeleComNasSprVen is a frequent editor of the Commons, with 45,000 edits since he registered in 2010.
Thryduulf: change is needed
Wikimedia Commons defines itself as a media repository with two goals: [to make] available public domain and freely licensed educational media content to all, and [to act] as a common repository for the various projects of the Wikimedia Foundation.
However, based on the observed actions of the Commons community, in particular the choice of which files need to be deleted, I feel that the project today could be more accurately be described as:
A repository for educational media files that are either: Explicitly and provably released under a free license; or Public domain according to the laws of the United States and the source country.
Notable is the absence of reference to the other Wikimedia projects. Further narrowing the utility to the wider Wikimedia family is the way these criteria are interpreted—the impression one gets is that if anyone disputes that a file is free, it will be deleted regardless of the merits of the concern. Just as administrators on other projects require no formal qualifications, admins at Commons are not required to have any legal training at all. Indeed I have heard Commons admins and nominators for deletion described as being amateur lawyers overly obsessed with copyright (although using rather less polite language), and is hard to disagree with that characterisation at times.
In discussions, most people who are Commons administrators fail to see any problem with the ultra-conservative approach to acceptability. Indeed, if one’s goal is to solely be a repository of media that can be freely used by anybody in every imaginable circumstance, then this is arguably the best policy to have. However, that is only part of Commons’ self-declared scope.
What the projects want and need, and what they would like Commons to be, is a reliable repository of files they can use to illustrate, their encyclopaedia articles, dictionary entries, books, etc. Where Commons takes a hard line view of copyright issues, most projects seem to take a more pragmatic approach—for example, there is a desire to have access to media that is out of copyright for all practical purposes, where there remains only the theoretical possibility that someone may have a copyright claim or where the chances of a copyright owner actually choosing to enforce their copyright are pretty much indistinguishable from “none”. This, relaxed “keep it unless we get a valid takedown notice”, approach to the issue is the one that appears to match the Foundation board’s view, taken in consultation with legal advice.
The way deletions on Commons are handled, particularly the observed extreme reluctance to inform anyone other than the image uploader of a deletion nomination (such as the watchers of articles using the media), seemingly arbitrary durations to discussions and the apparent irrelevance in many cases of any discussion that does occur, means that Commons is not at present a reliable host of media for the projects. In many cases the first people are aware that images that have been in use on a page for years have been questioned is when the images have been deleted.
As far as I can see, only four possible ways forward for the short term have been identified.
- The first is no change, and this seems to be favoured by the majority of Commons admins and others who view the Commons mission as being entirely a repository of absolutely free media. It is the least popular option among the majority of others who have commented.
- The second option is to change Commons to match what the projects want it to be—i.e. more relaxed about what they host. This is fiercely opposed by the current admins and those who misunderstand this as a request for Commons to host fair use material (it explicitly is not).
- Thirdly is a return to projects or chapters hosting their own images. This is least efficient option by far, and could be storing up problems for the future. Nevertheless it is an option not ruled out by the Israeli and Argentinian chapters among others.
- Finally, and possibly most radically, is to set up a second media repository with the sole mission of hosting content for the Wikimedia projects. Undoubtedly there will be technical hurdles to overcome, but most that have been identified are trivial and none are insurmountable. This option is probably the least favoured overall in terms of raw numbers, but if change is desired and the current Commons community cannot be persuaded to go for option two, then it may be the best.
I am firmly in the “change is needed” camp, and local project hosting does not feel to me like a good thing in the long term. Whether I prefer changing or supplementing Commons though is not such an easy call to make. Possibly the additional repository is the less optimal one, particularly if longer-term actions such as campaigning for changes to copyright laws bear fruit. Although on the other hand the risks of breaking the community from changing Commons against its will might be the greater?
I don’t know the answer, and ultimately it is something only the Wikimedia community can decide. Still, a decision does need to be made and refusing to engage with the discussion does no group any favours.
- Thryduulf was an admin on the Commons from December 2005 until he let the position lapse in February 2008 due to inactivity. He is currently active there as an uploader and categoriser.