[Wikipedia-l] Details of licensing -- should we bother?

Simon Kissane sj_kissane at yahoo.com
Wed Oct 31 14:50:26 UTC 2001

Hi everyone,

Recently I have been engaging on this list in rather
technical arguments about what the FDL allows and
doesn't allow. To be honest I have come to the
conclusion that the FDL is rather vague and difficult
to apply precisely. But then I suppose all such
licenses are like that -- there are just too many
possibilities to be able to deal with them all.

Of course, in the Real World(tm) people work out what
the license really means through lawsuits. But we
should all hope we need never resort to that. And
AFAIK, there has never been a single case involving
the GFDL or GPL. Most people are good and obey the
license (more or less); the few that don't can
generally be talked out of it or presured by the
community into compliance.

(And I think that, if anyone ever did violate the FDL
in respect of Wikipedia, and we tried to enforce it
through the courts, we might run into legal
difficulties anyway. I suspect it is much harder to
prosecute copyright infringement when the holders of
the copyright are an amorphous mass of people, many
anonymous, rather only one or a few clearly
identifiable individuals.)

Which is why I propose we forget about the precise
legal details of the FDL. Since the FDL is enforced
through means of social pressure rather than legal
proceeding, its spirit is more important than its
letter. So lets just put the precise requirements of
the FDL aside, and just concentrate on what would be
the best solution.

I also think we need to be flexible here. We should
decide on acknowledgement criteria now, but we should
be open to changing the criteria in the future.
Otherwise we might decide on something that seems good
now, but turns out later on to be very bad, and be
stuck with it. Any future adjustments should be
decided upon by the general consensus of the Wikipedia
community. Of course, changing acknowledgment criteria
like that might not fit with the letter of the FDL and
copyright law, but as I said above its the spirit, not
the letter, of the FDL that really counts. (And as to
copyright law, as I said it is difficult to apply it
to Wikipedia -- copyright law isn't designed to handle
largely anonymous, free, community products. It
doesn't IMHO work too well for things like GNU or
Linux, and it is sure to work even less for Wikipedia.
Open source and open content tries to build itself
upon copyright law, but there is no natural fit
between them -- they are based on fundamentally
different concepts.)

Finally, I think people are overestimating the
likelihood of Yahoo or MSN or so on putting up their
own variants of Wikipedia without acknowledging. They
wouldn't do this for several reasons: (1) even if they
might in theory get away with it, their lawyers would
tell them to be cautious; (2) coming from largely
copyright-centred corporate cultures (almost
everything they own is IP), they probably will need
encouragement to use Wikipedia at all, not
discouragement from using it incorrectly; (3) even if
they did, i'm sure the community (not just us, i'm
sure we'd see slashdot and then wired and other media
reporting on it) would pounce on them if they insisted
on using it without acknowledgement.

Simon J Kissane

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