Wikis, copyright, and licensing

A question about wikis and copyright came through my email inbox this week, and I thought I’d share it with my readers. It’s a good question and a common misconception of wikis is that all content is always liberated once it’s put on a wiki. Not so, and here is additional explanation.

Q: A colleague of mine is putting together a corporate wiki for engineers, researchers, and IT people and is concerned about wiki articles infringing on copyright for outside sources. For example, definitions of common terms, discussion of underlying concepts, etc. Is it sufficient if these items are reworded and paraphrased? If not, are citations required?

A: An excellent question. I think that people get a bit confused about the difference between protecting copyright and using licensed content correctly. I’m also surprised at how often people connect wikis to “content stealing.” :)

To pull from a blog post I wrote on the topic as a follow up question to my book, Choosing a License for Sharing Documentation Content,

“Copyright was intended to protect the creator from publishers publishing the content, “to the Ruin of them and their Families.” That ruination quote is pulled from the Statute of Anne, considered the origin of all copyright. Licensing the content is one of the things the copyright holder can do with the content to indicate how they, the creator, give permission for it to be used, sold, distributed, and so forth.”

To create a checklist for someone who needs to create, say, a glossary for IT-related definitions, you could use something like this list of questions:

  1. Is the content you’re using as a starting point licensed? If so, what does the license allow in terms of reuse, redistribution, and so on?
  2. If the license allows for attribution, have you attributed the content correctly? If there are other requirements for the license, can you meet those requirements?
  3. If you still want to re-use the content but it appears to be licensed in a way that prevents that, you can either contact the copyright holder and ask permission to use the content or rewrite most of the content in such a way that it becomes your own. A “rewrite” for reuse stance is the least defensible and may have the weakest rationale for the content’s reuse, however.

A walk through on current content reuse on a wiki may be helpful. If you wanted to walk someone through an example, you could use Wikipedia’s image pages – each image has a rationale for its placement on Wikipedia. From their Help:About page – “Every image has a description page which indicates the license under which it is released or, if it is non-free, the rationale under which it is used.”

In the previous post, I talked about licensing your content so it can be used. In this post, I talk about using licensed content. I’m sure there are other, more complex angles for content and reuse. Feel free to discuss!

One comment

  • April 26, 2010 - 1:20 pm | Permalink

    In my experience, the trickiest thing has been reusing images (i.e., even if it’s CC-licensed, you could still need a release from the model). Wikipedia’s image policy page is instructive .

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