CZ:License Essays/Utkarshraj Atmaram

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by Utkarshraj Atmaram

There are two main issues involved in deciding a license for Citizendium content.

  1. Should Citizendium allow commercial use of its content?
  2. Should Citizendium allow Wikipedia to use its content?

I'll focus on these two issues in the following text.

Should Citizendium allow commercial use of its content?

A license disallowing commercial use will not offer Citizendium much advantage

A few people find the use of a commerical license objectionable, because they view as anti-academic, or because they are apprehensive of others making profit off their work.

But, a majority of contributors to collaborative projects like Citizendium and Wikipedia don't really care about possible commercial use. We can understand this better, if we look into the motivation of people behind contributing to such project. As pointed out in a 2007 paper by Joachim Schroer & Guido Hertel[1], the Wikipedia contributors don't receive any monetary compensation or explicit public recognition as authors. They are driven by "intrinsic motivation" (fun, interest etc.), willingness to share their knowledge, desire to project things in positive or negative light (e.g. write about the scientist they admire, or the politician they hate) (aka propaganda), learning, socializing etc. (I speak from personal experience.[2]) By and large, the motivation of contributors to Citizendium, as it becomes successful, will be same. (Although, in case of Citizendium, people have a better chance of getting recognition for their work).

The citizendium contributors don't get any financial compensation for writing articles anyway, so most of them should not worry about others making profit off their work. Whether Citizendium adopts CC by-sa or CC by-sa-nc, it doesn't make any difference to the contributors — they are not getting paid either way. In case of CC by-sa, there is possibility of commercial establishments making profit on the contributors' backs; in case of CC by-sa-nc, the Citizendium Foundation will be making profit on their backs.

Also, if Citizendium adopts a license allowing only commercial use, a substantial number of editors might choose to dual-license their content. That is, they would contribute their content to Citizendium, but they will also license their content under a free license that allows commercial use (this could mean contributing their content to both Citizendium and Wikipedia, or making it available on their homepages under a more generous license). Dual-licensing their content will allow them to reach a wider audience, thus satisying their major motivations behind contributing to a project as an unpaid volunteer: sharing their knowledge, spreading their propaganda or point-of-view etc. In short, Citizendium will not receive any major protection from commercial use, while failing to get support from a number of editors who support "pure freedom".

I don't think Citizendium has any plans to have ads on the site, so the only advantage of a license disallowing commercial use will be access to images that are licensed under such a license (e.g. CC by-sa-nc). But, compared to the disadvantages of using such a license, this is not a signficant advantage.

A license disallowing commercial use will discourage potential contributors

Most potentital contributors are aware that no Board of Directors can be 100% impartial, or agree with all their views. There is always a possibility of disagreements leading to a fork; and some of the contributors will find it necessary to support their forks with commercial use of content or ads. Therefore, many contributors will feel "safer" while contributing to the project, if the content is licensed under a license that allows commercial use. On the other hand, if we use CC by-sa-nc, several people will be reluctant to contribute to the project because they will resent the perceived "hegemony" of the Board of Directors. Even if minor disagreements arise, the contributors will start wondering if it's worthwile contributing to the project, as the Citizendium Foundation is making profit off their work.

A license disallowing commercial use means less publicity: fewer readers, fewer contributors

Citizendium's chief way of gaining publicity till now has been its anti-Wikipedia rhetoric. But, in the long term, what will help the project is publicity from blogs, sites like Digg and Reddit, use by commercial companies, and goodwill from free software/free content enthusiasts.

If Citizendium allows commercial use, many websites will use its content, and link back to it, resulting in better search engine ranking and publicity. Apart from the websites that mirror entire Wikipedia content, there are also commercial sites (such as travel sites) that use a few pages from Wikipedia, resulting in wide publicity for the project. A non-commercial license will not allow Citizendium to get such kind of publicity.

With a commercial license, legitimate users will have to worry whether their use of Citizendium's content can be considered "primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation"[3] For example, a few organizations and individuals charge nominal fee to distribute Wikipedia CDs (this helps them recover the cost of CDs) -- this is common in countries and regions, where Internet penetration is very low. A "no commercial use" clause will also confuse bloggers who put ad-sense on their blogs. A blogger, who doesn't know much about legal issues, might wonder "Can I be sued if I quote a paragraph or two from Citizendium on a blog with ad-sense?" These are unnecessary complications, and will prevent Citizendium from getting much needed publicity.

Allowing commercial use of content will encourage commercial companies to find innovative ways of using and distributing Citizendium's work. Wikipedia gets huge publicity (and hence contributors) from such commercial websites (e.g. Answers.com, Webaroo, etc.) Citizendium's better reliability might prompt a few commercial companies to bundle an offline version of Citizendium articles with their educational software applications. A non-commercial license will prevent such distribution. On the other hand, if Citizendium allows commerical use of its conetent, many of these commercial establishements might like to donate to us.

A lot of Wikipedia's success can be credited to the initial word-of-mouth publicity by open-source enthusiasts, most of whom will be extremely prejudiced against a license disallowing commercial use. These are the people, who have the zeal and the enthusiasm required to make a project like Citizendium popular.

Should Citizendium allow Wikipedia to use its content?

Now that I've clearly explained that I favor a license that allows commercial use, let's move on to the next issue. Like most of us, I am strongly in favor of using an established license, rather than creating a new license. The two obvious candidates are GFDL and CC by-sa.

What if Citizendium uses GFDL and Wikipedia copies its content?

A license that disallows Wikipedia to use Citizeindum's content will not offer Citizendium any kind of competitive advantage over Wikipedia. If Citizendium selects CC by-sa, Wikimedia Foundation is always free to create a new site called cz.wikipedia.org, where it can mirror all of Citizendium's content under CC by-sa. Also, as I've pointed out above, a major motivation of contributors to such projects is willingness to share and spread knowledge or their point-of-view. If Citizendium adopts a license that disallows Wikipedia from using its content, such editors might end up dual-licensing their content, and contribute to both Wikipedia and Citizendium. In short, "we will become a feeder wiki" argument doesn't hold much water.

Citizendium's main advantage over Wikipedia will not be extraordinarily better content, or lack of vandalism (with the proposed[4] FlaggedRevs extension, Wikipedia's reliability and quality are bound to increase). The USP of Citizendium will be its promised professional and scholarly environment, which will attract academics and students, as well as Wikipedians who are fed up of "defending" their content against anonymous trolls and troublemakers.[5] Even if Wikipedia copies content from Citizendium, the Wikipedia articles will degrade in quality as editors try to defend them from unreasonable editors hiding behind pseudonyms.

If Citizendium produces better articles, and if Wikpedia starts borrowing content from the project, it will only mean more publicity and increased search-engine rankings for Citizendium. If a Wikipedia page states "this article uses content from Citizendium", it will benefit Citizendium in a huge way. Readers and potential contributors will always appreciate the site that created the content. Citizendium will also get attention and patronage from good Wikipedia contributors. Also, the bloggers and the journalists will notice this, and will start writing about this phenomenon.

Moreover, the objective of a project like Citizendium should be to create the best content, for maximum possible distribution. It should not be to get highest Google rankings or lot of traffic, or to prove that Wikipedia is a failure (it's not). The Google rankings and traffic will follow if the contributors concentrate on creating good content.

CC by-sa or GFDL?

I do not have a strong opinion on this issue, and I'm not well versed with the legal intricacies to comment on this issue. My point in the above section is that the "feeder-wiki" argument should not of any concern while deciding between GFDL and CC by-sa. I'm OK with either GFDL or CC by-sa, or even both (dual-licensing).

Conclusion

  • We should allow commercial use of our content. It will help us in reaching a wider audience, and attract more readers and contributors.
  • While choosing between GFDL and CC by-sa, becoming a "feeder wiki" argument should not be of any concern.

Notes

  1. Hertel, Guido & Joachim Schroer (2007), Voluntary Engagement in an Open Web-based Encyclopedia: Wikipedians, and Why They Do It, University of Wuerzburg
  2. I've been editing Wikipedia for over three years, I am an administrator there, and have made over 35,000 edits: MediaWiki Query Interface - User:Utcursch. English Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2007-10-10.
  3. Quote from cc-by-nc-sa 3.0. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
  4. Erik Moeller (October 3, 2007). Unofficial stable version demo. Wikipedia-l mailing list. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
  5. Jason Scott (November 19, 2004). The Great Failure of Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2007-10-20. -- I don't completely agree with Jason Scott, but I whole-heartedly agree with this particular point: "content generators stop being so and have to become content defenders". Over the years, I've found that most of my edits to Wikipedia are not addition of content, but "defending" my earlier contributions from vandals, trolls, and unreasonable people hiding behind pseudonyms. Citizendium will attract contributors who don't want to waste time defending their content.