NOTICE: Citizendium is still being set up on its newer server, treat as a beta for now; please see here for more.
Citizendium - a community developing a quality comprehensive compendium of knowledge, online and free. Click here to join and contribute—free
CZ thanks our previous donors. Donate here. Treasurer's Financial Report -- Thanks to our content contributors. --

CZ:Should authors share copyright with the Citizendium Foundation?

From Citizendium, the Citizens' Compendium
Jump to: navigation, search

Policy argument summary started on 23 March 2007.


The issue

In addition to making their work available to Citizendium under the chosen license terms, should contributors also share copyright for their original contributions with Citizendium?

It needs to be stressed that this is not a request for copyright transfer. Authors retain copyright themselves but agree to grant it to the Citizendium Foundation as well.

Some relevant points:

  • Contributors can only share copyright for their own original contributions, not material sourced from third parties such as (but not limited to) Wikipedia.
  • Copyright is valuable, and authors are usually given something (not necessarily money) in return for sharing it, or granting lesser rights.
  • Sharing copyright grants a lot of power to the Citizendium Foundation, which can be used in both positive and negative ways.

Affirmative: require copyright sharing

Argument: copyright sharing makes relicensing of content significantly easier

A copyright holder can release their material under any terms they wish. If at some point in the future it becomes desirable to switch licenses or release material under a different license, the Citizendium Foundation will be able to implement this decision instantly for the majority of content.

An example of why this is important can be seen in the Free Software community with the impending release of version 3 of the GNU General Public License. Various projects, in order to be certain of the licensing under which they will operate, have chosen to release their code strictly under GPL version 2, without the optional term that allows licensees to use software under the terms of later versions [1]. Unless there is a single individual or organisation holding copyright for the whole codebase, these projects will have to get the permission of all contributors in order to upgrade, and rewrite parts of the code whose authors did not grant such permission. The Linux kernel is the primary example of a project facing this dilemma as it licenses strictly under GPL v2 while copyright remains in the hands of individual contributors.

We cannot assume that one license will remain perpetually appropriate for Citizendium's purposes, nor can we assume that later upgrades of existing licenses will always meet the project's needs. Collective consensus on these matters will become impossible as the project expands, and individual authors may vanish due to accident, death or other factors [2]. Therefore, the project needs copyright to be shared to ensure it can fulfil its aims effectively in future.

Reply: The power to relicense can be used against the interests of the contributing community

See also: CZ:Should we permit or disallow commercial use of CZ-originated articles? and in later sections of the present article

Copyright sharing grants the Citizendium Foundation rights and privileges in Citizendium's content not shared by the community who created it. This in itself creates a potentially serious social division militating against the sense of a shared collective effort. However, it is the uses to which these powers can be put that mark the major threat to the interests of contributors.

The principal benefit accrued in contributing to Citizendium, as with free software projects, is not in terms of money or renown but in the collective resource that emerges when one's own work is combined with those of others. The author who can write expertly about one aspect of a topic will see his work on that added to and expanded on by those who know about other sides of the issue. Those with similar knowledge can combine their efforts to produce a finished piece of work in less time. This effort is bound together by the manner in which work is shared: contributors offer certain privileges associated with authorship, including rights to distribute and modify the work and distribute modified versions, in exchange for the guarantee that all distributed derivatives of their work will be available to them and others on the same terms.

Sharing of copyright allows the Citizendium Foundation to subvert this mechanism by selling licenses to the community's work that do not require this return. If Citizendium sold a commercial-use license, the recipient could take the community's work and expand on it without having to give back the new material. The Foundation would benefit financially at the expense of its contributors. While the community does have an interest in Citizendium gaining income, it has a still greater interest in maintaining access to the fruits of its labours.

Reply: The inclusion of material sourced from third parties raises significant practical difficulties

Whichever license we pick from those on option, there will be a substantial amount of material already in existence released under compatible terms. We can use this under the given license but cannot share copyright. It is highly unlikely we will not wish to make use of this material, and given the potential size of Citizendium, it will only take a small percentage of material to be obtained from such sources to present us with a significant stumbling block to the swift license upgrades envisioned above.

Citizendium already has a mechanism in place for tracking material from a major third-party source, Wikipedia. We will need to extend this to tracking all third-party-sourced work, and will need to have the ability to, in any given article, separate out the third-party material from the original contributions. A worst-case scenario would see a large percentage of articles containing material from a third-party — difficult to track and a huge amount of work to rewrite, and in practice restricting license-switching ability no less effectively than a regime without any copyright sharing.

Argument: copyright sharing makes it easier to defend license violations

The Free Software Foundation requests copyright transfer for contributions to its own projects [3], citing legal advice that this makes it easier to defend the copyright [4]. There are procedural advantages that stem from registration of copyright and authors no longer have to rely on solely their own resources to defend their work.

Reply: copyright sharing places legal responsibility on Citizendium for contributors' actions, such as libellous remarks

Wikipedia apparently uses a legal defence against libel suits that it is not a publisher but a service provider, that is, it does not own or create content but merely creates a platform for content to be created and shared. Copyright sharing would mean that Citizendium could not claim similarly, and would be held responsible for incorrect or libellous content.

Rebuttal: Citizendium editorial policies might limit the "service provider" argument anyway

Since Citizendium actively vets its pages and only allows them to be open to the public after a quality review, some would argue that it's unlikely we could claim no responsibility for the content.

Reply: does copyright sharing really grant the same advantages as copyright transfer?

Citizendium is not being granted a copyright transfer, so do the same advantages result? We may need legal advice on this point.

Negative: do not require copyright sharing

Argument: it's not clear if copyright sharing is possible

Copyright law allows for a transfer of copyright, and it allows for a grant of license. It's not clear that it allows sharing of copyright except among joint authors.

In some cases individuals may have job restrictions that prevent them sharing copyright but which will not prevent them releasing their work under GFDL or Creative Commons licenses. An analogous situation certainly arises in respect to software [5]. Furthermore there are countries that do not recognise the possibility of transferring copyright (including Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Hungary), or grant in law other rights — the "moral rights" of authors — which cannot be transferred.

Reply: we could ask for an appropriate license instead of copyright

Where copyright sharing is not possible or desirable, we could ask for a license granting appropriate powers. The FSFE's Fiduciary License agreement contains such a possibility as an alternative to copyright transfer [6].

Argument: copyright remaining with individual contributors protects the community

See also: CZ:Should we permit or disallow commercial use of CZ-originated articles? and in earlier sections of the present article

It cannot be assumed that the interests of the Citizendium Foundation and the interests of the community will always be perfectly aligned. Copyright being owned by a single authority allows the possibility of a number of abusive scenarios including relicensing against the wishes of the community and relicensing in terms that cut the community off from derivatives of its creations. If authors maintain copyright then the contents of Citizendium can only ever be a collective resource — no one interest can dominate its direction or use. The community is thus protected from vested interests that might emerge at the leadership level.

Reply: within an appropriate framework of guarantees to accompany copyright sharing, the community's rights can be maintained

Copyright can be shared in the context of an agreement where the Citizendium Foundation commits to certain responsibilities. An example is the Free Software Foundation Europe's Fiduciary License Agreement, where copyright is transferred to FSFE in return for (i) a license being granted back to the author granting them the rights they would enjoy under copyright and (ii) a guarantee that FSFE will only exercise the rights granted in accordance with the principles of Free Software. In the event of a violation of this second guarantee, all granted rights and licenses automatically return to the author. Citizendium could commit to exercise its rights only in accordance with the principles of free/open content, or non-commercial use, or one or the other (allowing a free choice between these two options at any time).

Rebuttal: guarantees are not enough — there needs to be a separation of power between the different interests

Despite its close relationship with the GNU project and others the Free Software Foundation does not itself develop software and has no interest in the quality, benefit or success of any particular software product. Instead it focuses on defining the principles of free software and, through extensive work with copyright lawyers, providing a firm legal basis for those principles. Internal conflicts of interest between principles of free software and the benefit of a given software project are unlikely to arise because the FSF is involved only with the former. People can be encouraged to offer copyright to FSF because their interests — making and keeping their work free — and those of the FSF are perfectly aligned.

The situation with Citizendium is different because the same organisation — the Citizendium Foundation — is proposing to take on the direction of a particular product, an encyclopaedia, as well as defining and defending the principles of distribution. Without a separation of power between these interests authors cannot contribute with confidence that the latter will not be modified to suit the former. Even if the provided guarantees theoretically prevent such an issue arising, possible perceptions of the situation — "the watchman watching himself", and copyright being requested to further Citizendium's interests rather than the principles of contributors — present strong disincentives to contribution.

Argument: contributors should not be expected to share copyright without getting something in return

Social convention recognises that authors' rights in their work are valuable and that granting them to others generally requires some form of payment. This need not be financial. Fiction and poetry magazines often do not pay authors for contributions but give them valuable exposure and publicity in exchange for serial publication rights. Academic journals often request copyright transfer but provide refereeing services and a level of endorsement and dissemination that is crucial to a researcher's reputation. If Citizendium is to request copyright sharing it must offer something in return of value commensurate to this important right.

Reply: copyright can be shared in return for certain commitments on the part of the Citizendium Foundation

Copyright need not be shared freely but can be granted as part of an agreement where Citizendium agrees to take on certain responsibilities. Probably these would consist of agreeing to take legal responsibility for the work, protecting copyright and ensuring that it remains available according to certain principles. An example has already been given above, that of the FSFE's Fiduciary License Agreement [7].

Argument: people are wary of giving copyright to others even for money, requesting it will reduce the number of willing contributors

A rule almost universally cited to prospective authors is: NEVER GIVE UP YOUR COPYRIGHT! [8] Although Citizendium would ask for copyright to be shared, not surrendered, the desire among authors not to grant copyright privileges to others is strong and people are likely to be discouraged from contributing if we require this. In the free software community it has been noted that projects requiring sharing or transfer of copyright may dissuade contributors in this way [9].

We could request instead a license along the lines of FSFE's Fiduciary License Agreement [10] but this could be as offputting as a request for copyright. The more agreements we require contributors to sign up to, the more scary it becomes — whereas existing licenses such as GFDL and creative commons licenses are now known parts of the internet culture, contributors will want to read in detail any agreement along the lines of an FLA. This is time-consuming and troublesome and has the potential for misunderstandings over what Citizendium is requesting. Furthermore, spelling out in great detail what we are requesting will emphasise to potential authors what powerful rights they are granting CZ and lead them to question or fear the consequences of contributing.

In the event that contributors do not read in detail all the agreements associated with contribution but just look at the general distribution license (GFDL, by-nc, ...) they may feel abused or misled when later they find out what powers they have given away and cease to contribute. Even allowing for authors' willingness to grant such rights, the agreements and legal documentation required form an extra delay in the path to contributing. The more hoops people have to jump through to become a contributing member, the less of them will make it through to this point, regardless of the reasonableness of any one hoop.

Reply: people will grant copyright or a comparable license more readily if doing so is supportive of their own interests

Individuals contributing material to a community project usually do so with some ideal in mind, whether it is free software (in the case of contributors to the GNU project and others), free/open content, or the existence of a quality encyclopedia. If the agreement for copyright sharing is supportive of that ideal and helps prevent uses of their work contrary to what they intend, contributors will much more readily agree to share these privileges with Citizendium.

Citizendium Communication
Workgroups | Discussion forum | Announcement list | Blog | For non-members | Twitter | Other
Getting Started Organization Communication Technical Help Initiatives
Policies Editor Guidance Content Guidance Article Lists Governance
Welcome Page