It’s free and open for a reason!

Just as I was writing this post on ignorance of open source models, there was news of a major publisher making a print edition of Wikipedia. This led to backlash reactions which illustrate exactly the kind of misunderstanding that arises when people don’t get open-source licenses (via ReadWriteWeb.

The whole point of Wikipedia is to provide a voluntary online source of information. That is why people voluntarily gave up some of their time to write the articles for free in the first place. It is a noble project, the writer believed in the project and so they participated in it. Had they known that Wikipedia would then use their work in a commercial printed venture, I’m sure they would have had second thoughts about writing those articles. At the very least they would have demanded a contract and perhaps a guarantee of financial compensation later.

Now the author might well have a point – maybe people don’t know what they’re doing when they’re adding to wikipedia and maybe wikipedia should make it more clear. Still, I find it worrying that they would consider some big ball of wrong has been cast upon them. A great place for them to start researching would be the GNU article on wikipedia, the one article whose authors knew they would be victims right from the start ;).

There are several disturbing things about this:

  • First, if this ignorance does exist, that’s unfortunate. If anyone is a major enough contributor to wikipedia to care about this, they really ought to familiarise themselves with the basics of the GNU license they’re operating under. (And for the record, I think it’s a shame wikipedia uses GNU instead of a more permissive license.)
  • It’s scarcity mentality. Boo-hoo, the publisher is making money and I’m not, so they must be ripping me off. Yeah right! If you were willing to contribute to wikipedia before, your content remains just as available online as before. What’s changed? Nothing, except someone else is going to make your content more digestible in certain contexts and accessible to more people. And yes, they will make money from it. Maybe they’ll make lots of money. Whatever. That’s what happens in a modern knowledge economy – people like Larry and Sergey make money without denying it from someone else. Far from removing others’ assets, they actually add value to everyone else. Likewise, the existence of a print wikipedia will also add, in its own way, to society’s wealth. (Although not the forests. That’s a separate, more legitimate, argument.)
  • There’s an old psychology result that says people care more about their spending power in relative terms than absolute terms. ie you ask them “Would you rather earn $50,000 a year while other people make $25,000, or would you rather earn $100,000 a year while other people get $250,000? Assume price of service and goods would remain the same.” People would rather earn half as much, if it means they are richer rather than poorer than others. That result says a lot for this kind of irrational backlash against anyone who might cash in on their “volunteer” work.
  • It’s hardly the first time this has happened. Answers.com and hundreds of fairly useless SEO sites have been profiting from wikipedia content for years. I’m surprised it took this long for someone to do it. I could imagine countless opportunities for books on niche content – bizarre trivia, country almanacs, movie guides, etc etc.

That a company can do something like this without having to formally negotiate with the wikipedia foundation and a million contributors…I call that a cause for celebration, not outrage. Personally, I’ve contributed various boring tidbits to wikipedia and I hereby invite any publisher to print what they want from my contributions, even if there’s only limited demand for hard copy about snowclones.

Leave a Reply