[WikiEN-l] RfC: A Free Content and Expression Definition

Erik Moeller eloquence at gmail.com
Mon May 1 15:30:17 UTC 2006

Dear Wikimedia community,

I am posting this to multiple lists, as I believe it is relevant to
each of them (more on that below).

For years, we have been using the term "free content" to refer to our
projects. However, what exactly is free content? Does it include the
right to make commercial use? Does it allow derivative works? A year
ago, Anthere, one of our elected trustees, noted that the English
Wikipedia article [[free content]] is confused and contains no clear
definition. This is no surprise, as the term has evolved purely
through its usage. One year on, the article doesn't look much better
and still doesn't contain a single reference.

It is clear that we need a definition. With the help of feedback from
the likes of Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig, and an increasing
number of collaborators, I have drafted up a first version of such a
definition, called the "Free Content and Expression Definition":


You can also use the URLs <http://freedomdefinition.org/> or
<http://freedomdefined.org/>. Please use the URL

        http://freecontentdefinition.org/static/ (with trailing slash)

when submitting this link to high traffic sites.

Licenses covered by this definition must grant the following freedoms:

* the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
* the freedom to redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the
information or expression
* the freedom to make improvements or other changes, and to release
modified copies

The essence of these freedoms is not negotiable. However, in order to
best express, interpret and elaborate on these freedoms, I would like
to announce an open editing phase to push this Definition to a 1.0
version. There is a stable, protected version of the definition and an
unstable, openly editable one. The openly editable one, which may
already differ significantly from the one above by the time you read
this, can be found at:


You can suggest changes on the talk page, or be bold and make them
directly. The change process will be consensus-based. In order to
decide when a consensus has been reached on a change, I have appointed
three moderators besides myself:

* Benjamin Mako Hill. Mako is a co-initiator of the definition and a
prolific figure in the free software community. To quote Wikipedia, he
"is a Debian hacker and author of the Debian GNU/Linux 3.1 Bible
(...). He currently works in the electronic publishing group of the
MIT Media Lab, and is on the boards of Software in the Public
Interest, Software Freedom International (the organization that
organizes Software Freedom Day) and the Ubuntu Foundation."
* Angela Beesley. You may be familiar with her. ;-) She's the other of
the two elected trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, and also the
Vice President of Community Relations at Wikia, Inc.
* Mia Garlick. General Counsel at Creative Commons, and an expert on
IP law. Creative Commons is, of course, the project which offers many
easy-to-use licenses to authors and artists, some of which are free
content licenses and some of which are not.

None of them is acting here in an official capacity related to their
affiliations. Please treat their comments as personal opinion unless
otherwise noted. See
<http://freecontentdefinition.org/Authoring_process> for details on
the authoring process and
<http://freecontentdefinition.org/Moderators> for more about

The Creative Commons project has welcomed the effort to clearly
classify existing groups of licenses, and will work to supplement this
definition with one which covers a larger class of licenses and works.

In addition to changes to the definition itself, we invite you to
submit logos that can be attached to works or licenses which are free
under this definition:


Why is this relevant to the projects I am alerting about it?


Has the most significant problems distinguishing between free and
non-free materials simply because of the sheer amount of uploads and
user-submitted content. The English Wikipedia, for instance, allows
limited "fair use" in addition to free content uploads, but prohibits
licenses which forbid commercial use. This definition allows us to
state clearly: "An uploaded work must either be free content, or fair
use. If it is fair use, strong restrictions apply, and your upload may
be deleted or replaced at any time."

The definition also contains remarks about interoperability with other
licenses. This is a problem that concerns us at the moment when it
comes to importing texts under licenses which are philosophically
similar, but legally incompatible with the GFDL. If the definition
gets widely adopted, we can push for changes to licenses to make them
more compatible with each other.

Wikimedia Commons

Commons was launched as a free content repository. We have effectively
followed the terms of the definition in the licenses we allow and
prohibit for uploaded files; however, the discussions about whether to
allow, for example, pictures which cannot be used commercially keep
coming up. Clearly labeling the repository as a free content archive
under this definition will help to avoid that.


I've seen some uploaded photo galleries that were under licenses which
forbid derivative works. If we limit Wikimedia projects to free
content, that would explicitly not be allowed. This is an example of
"non-free content creep" that may be observed on other projects as


The definition contains recommendations about license complexity.
Wiktionary as a resource for terminological and lexicological data
does not benefit from the highly complex terms of the GFDL, which
require, for example, reprinting the entire license text when copying
a single page.


The definition makes it easy to resolve the question of which licenses
to allow or disallow across projects. For example, a Wikimedia-wide
policy could be that: "All content in all projects must be free
content as per the Free Content Definition 1.0, with the exception of
works which are used under exemptions granted by national copyright
laws, such as 'fair use' in the United States. These exemptions are
defined on a per-project and per-language basis."

Outside Wikimedia, the definition will make it easier for us to
communicate. For instance, many people use the very vague terms "open
access" or "open content", or simply talk about "a Creative Commons
license" when describing licensing of their work. The term "free
content" has an existing usage in the sense described herein. With the
additional support of this definition, it is a powerful and simple way
to determine whether a work is usable in the context of the Wikimedia

One note on the choice of name. Not all people will be happy to label
their works "content", as it is also a term that is heavily used in
commerce. This is why Mako and I have compromised on the name "Free
Content and Expression Definition" for the definition itself. We are
suggesting "Free Expression" as an alternative term that may lend
itself particularly to usage in the context of artistic works.
However, we remain open on discussing the issue of naming, and invite
your feedback in this regard.

All that being said, I hope that you will join the open editing phase
or the logo contest. Even if there will be very little feedback, I
hope we will be able to release a 1.0 version of this definition
fairly soon.

You will find a general announcement that you can copy and paste to
other places at:


Please leave a quick note in the log when distributing it. As a final
note, if you create an account on the wiki, I would appreciate it if
you could use your real name as your user name.

Thanks for your time,


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