License compatibility

Possible license migration sparks debate

Reports that Wikipedia could migrate to a new content license gained circulation after Jimmy Wales confirmed the progress in that direction at a Creative Commons party. Precise details remain uncertain, and the change ultimately hinges on formal approval following a discussion in the Wikipedia community.

Since its launch, Wikipedia text has always been under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), one of the Free Software Foundation's licenses designed for manuals rather than software. Among the common concerns raised about the GFDL has been its burdens on reuse, such as requiring reproduction of the full text of the license. Also much-requested has been greater compatibility with the Creative Commons family of licenses; some of these are among the free content licenses permitted on Wikimedia Commons, and thus apply to many of the images that illustrate Wikipedia articles. These licenses did not exist at the time Wikipedia started, but have gained more widespread use than the GFDL outside the field of software.

Because of these issues, the Free Software Foundation, Creative Commons, and the Wikimedia Foundation have been involved for several years in consulting and negotiating with each other on efforts to harmonize the licenses. Recent conversations suggested progress was being made, but gave no clear sign that would boost the confidence of those hoping for this step, or indicate when to expect it. The Creative Commons function, held 30 November in San Francisco, seems to promise a commitment to bringing it about, and Wales was quoted as calling the event a "party to celebrate the liberation of Wikipedia."

The Wikimedia Foundation published a board resolution on the subject 1 December. It formally requests that the Free Software Foundation modify the GFDL to allow migration to the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license. The vote on the resolution was 5-0 in favor (one member, Kat Walsh, did not vote, while another board position is currently vacant following the departure of Michael Davis). Board chair Florence Devouard emphasized that once a modified license is finalized, the possible migration would depend on "a process of community discussion and voting before making a final decision on relicensing."

The promised discussion is arguably underway already, as the news prompted a vigorous debate on the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list. One particular issue involved the extent to which a copyleft license for an image, when used in conjunction with text, applies to the accompanying text, with some feeling that this was a point of distinction between the GFDL and CC-BY-SA licenses. Greg Maxwell reiterated his objections to Creative Commons licenses, arguing that the guidance for using them was confusing or contradicted the actual license text, and that they might jeopardize the right of attribution for the original creator of content.

Benjamin Mako Hill, who is a member of the Free Software Foundation board while also serving on Wikimedia's advisory board, argued that the image issue was not an obstacle to compatibility. Hill said he understood the problem to involve the definition of a derivative work, something that can vary from one jurisdiction to another, thus producing different results even if one license was used consistently (regardless of which license). Meanwhile, the discussion left some uncertain as to whether the migration would involve simply replacing the GFDL with CC-BY-SA, or some combined version that might resemble "dual-licensing". As geni pointed out, without the actual text of any new licenses people would have to wait and see.

Also this week:
  • Gardner interview
  • Arbitration series
  • License compatibility
  • Staffing features
  • Software issues
  • WikiWorld
  • News and notes
  • In the news
  • WikiProject report
  • Features and admins
  • Technology report
  • Arbitration report

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