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Springer's misappropriation of Wikimedia content "the tip of the iceberg"

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By Tony1
Mathematician Endre Szemerédi. The file has been reused without proper attribution.
Mathematician Endre Szemerédi, awarded the Abel Prize 2012 by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Photo by User:Sergio01, licence CC BY-SA. Re-used at least twice on the academy's website without proper attribution. One example has already been taken down, but one remains without attribution.
Poppies in the Sunset on Lake Geneva. The image is freely licensed but not marked as such on SpringerImages.
Sunset on Lake Geneva with poppies. Used on SpringerImages twice (one already taken down, one in a book remains, complete with intrusive watermark and for sale). Originally posted on Flickr by Pear Biter under CC BY-SA. Licensing confirmed in 2009. Now labelled at Flickr as "All rights reserved".
A GSM base station on a rooftop in Paris. Also used several times without proper attribution.
A GSM base station on a rooftop in Paris. Photo by User:~Pyb, licensed CC BY-SA. Re-used several times without proper attribution, including this cover image on a predatory open access journal.
Key issues with re-use of materials from Wikimedia Commons: lack of proper attribution (left and right) and improper statement of licensing terms (centre).

Last week, the Signpost was alerted to a blog in which a Cambridge researcher, Professor Peter Murray-Rust, observed that Springer Science+Business Media is taking Wikimedia content and asserting copyright over it. In his words, this is the "apparent systematic relicensing and relabeling" of Wikimedia content, "a breach of copyright and therefore illegal in most jurisdictions".

Springer SBM is the largest publisher of scholarly books in the world—a remarkable 7,000 a year—and with about 2,000 titles is the second-largest academic journal publisher after Elsevier. Springer owns 55 publishing houses and employs 6,200 people, and has considerable prestige and clout in the knowledge industry. One of their most popular websites is SpringerImages, the site on which Murray-Rust found the Wikimedia content. SpringerImages charges people for the use of their growing collection of 3.4 million scientific, technical, and medical images.
File:1000 Year Temperature Comparison.png as seen on SpringerImages, violating the terms of the original licence. The watermark obliterates much of the information on the graph.
Luc Montagnier, co-recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the HIV. Photo by User:Túrelio, licensed CC BY-SA. Used more than 100 times on non-Wikimedia websites, mostly without proper attribution, including a press release by Springer on the Nobel prize; after notification, the image was taken down.
File:Beluga, Weißwal (Delphinapterus leucas).jpg
Used in Fig. 1 of a paper in the Springer journal Brain Structure and Function, together with three other images that had been generically attributed to Wikipedia, without mention of author (Eva Hejda), or licence (CC BY-SA).

One commenter at Murray-Rust's blog sought to explain how this could have happened, rightly pointing out the copyright transfer process: "Folks have been submitting articles to Springer, using Wikimedia images in them, and during upload have ticked a box saying they were the creator of all images. During this process, Springer likely requires you to assign copyright to them. Springer now slightly lazily assumes it owns copyright on the images. No great conspiracy." Murray-Rust responded, "But laziness is no defence in law. And Springer are SELLING these. If I appropriate someone's scholarly image I check. Springer [does not]."

Murray-Rust's accusations drew a sharp response from Springer's executive vice president, Wim van der Stelt, on the Google+ SpringerOpen blog:

Mr [sic] Murray-Rust not only attributes the problem incorrectly to Springer Images, but also insinuates that Springer is selling commercial rights to use images that are already open access. This is not only outrageous and blatantly false, it also damages our reputation. ... The larger implication, that Springer is "stealing" copyright and the insinuation that Springer is attempting to profit from "ill-gotten gains" is false and we call upon Peter Murray-Rust to correct this allegation immediately.

Murray-Rust has indeed retracted his more trenchant allegations, including that of "copytheft". He told the Signpost, though, that the current position for Wikipedia and many other providers is that there are many instances of apparent rebadging of material in SpringerImages. While Springer has been informed of this, they have made no comment, and these images continue to be offered for resale. "A typical price is US$60 for re-use in teaching/coursepacks."

Murray-Rust's interest in uncovering the misappropriation of Wikimedia materials by SpringerImages was piqued when he discovered images there from a paper on which he was a co-author. He also found cases in which content imported from other publishers such as Wiley and PLoS—or in the public domain—was incorrectly labelled or licensed.

"I was personally affected", he said, "in that my CC BY content in BioMed Central journals had been copied and recopyrighted onto the Springer site. We've asked that at least SpringerImages announce to the world that there's a problem, and they have failed to do this. I've found hundreds of such instances, including content from museums and other companies. I'd guess there are thousands of images on SpringerImages that have been rebadged."

However, the poor attribution and licensing of material from Wikimedia Commons and the Wikipedias are far more widespread than just Springer's practices suggest. Even though detailed help is available on Commons, many downloaders make no effort to comply with the terms of the licences. With the exception of public-domain content, the use of materials found on Wikimedia projects requires attribution of the copyright holders and either the text of or links to the original licence.

Daniel Mietchen, Wikimedian in Residence on Open Science, told the Signpost that it's disheartening to see freely licensed images with instructions like "Viewing this image requires a subscription. If you are a subscriber, please log in." But the Springer issue is just "the tip of the iceberg", he says. "Wikimedia Commons has a dedicated category for cases in which uploaded files have been re-used externally in violation of these terms."

Currently, more than 1800 affected files are on the list, some of which have been used over 100 times outside Wikimedia platforms. The category's description reads "sometimes, media organizations just don't understand that in most cases, you just can't rip an image off Commons and just use it."

Mietchen says "media organizations are far from the only organizations and individuals misusing Commons' content." For example, the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) declined to continue donating images to the Commons in 2010. Efforts by the German Wikimedia chapter had yielded a 100,000-image donation in 2008, the largest in Commons' history, but the results were troubling for the Bundesarchiv: "more than 90% of their images, while licensed correctly on the Commons, had been re-used without proper attribution across the Internet." In one notable case, more than 3,000 of the images, all available for free online, had been cropped to remove the attribution line and then listed for sale on Ebay as a "private collection" (Signpost coverage).

This is reflected on the individual level, too. Commons bureaucrat User:99of9 told the Signpost, "fewer than half of the files I've personally authored and uploaded to Commons have been attributed when re-used elsewhere on the internet; and fewer than 30% have appeared with the proper licence. Some Wikimedians have tried marking their files with a prominent notice about re-use in addition to the licence template, but this has been controversial at Commons. We've also trialled a click to re-use this image button, but there were technical problems and it's not currently in use."

"The 1800 files in the "misused" category at Commons," he says, "are almost certainly a vast underestimate, and re-use is a persistent problem for the site." We asked whether the solution lies in refining the warnings and making it easier for the public to understand their responsibility as re-users. "Certainly we need to educate the public, and what you suggest may be part of the answer."

Mietchen says that improper licensing sometimes starts at the source, even with publishers. For example, PAGEPress has been labelling their articles as "This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Licence (by-nc 3.0)", i.e. with long and short forms of the licence text in contradiction—at one point with a bad typo—that has since been corrected to CC BY-NC throughout, which renders the content ineligible for re-use on Wikimedia projects.

While the failure of SpringerImages to comply with Creative Commons licensing terms had been pointed out as early as 2009 by archivist Klaus Graf, Springer appears to have finally taken action to clean up the problem over the past few days. This has been done in part by removing any content generically attributed to "Wikipedia" (of which there had been 368 results on Friday) and "Wikimedia" (157), with just one remaining watermarked "SpringerImages" and attributed to "Wikipaedia" [sic].

More than a day before this edition of the Signpost was published, the company's executive vice president of corporate communications, Eric Merkel-Sobotta, told us, "We have worked all weekend to solve the issues, and will be ready to make an announcement within 24 hours. I will make sure this is sent to you." The Signpost has received no further correspondence from Springer.

Sample sites of the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition. Still on sale and displayed with intrusive watermark at SpringerImages. Originally published in Rusch et al. (2007). "The Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling Expedition: Northwest Atlantic through Eastern Tropical Pacific". PLoS Biology 5 (3): e77. licensed CC BY.
A thunderstorm over Unna. Photo taken by User:Smial. Licence artlibre. Selected as a featured picture on Commons. Re-used several times without proper attribution.

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Assigning blame

See Copyfraud. -- Ssilvers (talk) 19:05, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Springer just published a statement in response to these allegations --DarTar (talk) 19:08, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Springer has changed the URL for the statement. Tony (talk) 00:17, 13 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

It's not entirely clueful and downplays their culpable behaviour in this incident. But it's a good start. I expect they will achieve enlightenment sooner rather than later - David Gerard (talk) 19:20, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Springer says: "In addition, we have manually stopped display of *all* images with MediaWiki or Wikipedia in the caption. These images will not be displayed again until we can reliably differentiate among those that have non-commercial restrictions." What? None of our content has non-commercial restrictions. They should've just complied with the licenses, not removed them all wholesale. They are definitely a bit clueless. Dcoetzee 19:30, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Yeah. Wacky. Seems like maybe rushing is compounding the problem. -Pete (talk) 19:36, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • In some industries (like film and music) it's standard practice to carefully review a work to make sure all relevant licensing agreements are in place long before publication. I can't imagine why an academic publisher would hold itself to a lower standard. This is really pretty shocking for a business that is supposedly trying to embrace openness. -Pete (talk) 19:35, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
    • oh no, they know what they are doing, they will remove all free content, and keep only what they can control and charge for. when you are the pay to play gatekeeper, there was no penalty for stealing from the public domain, merely some loss of prestige. so they had no reason to screen free images, until their nose was rubbed in it. i'm not all that shocked, the wrangling that goes on in public at WP, goes on in private at companies. does "trying to embrace openness" mean fatal embrace. Slowking4 †@1₭ 20:01, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
      • otoh: "We will also be reaching out to Creative Commons and Wikipedia to investigate whether working together might help us to find the best approach to these challenges." hey pete, can you hold their hand? it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Slowking4 †@1₭ 20:55, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
        • That was also the most interesting part to me, and several options for how to collaborate come to mind. They could for instance (1) try something like Topic Pages with some of their journals (2) upload (a selection of) their open access images (i.e. CC BY) to Flickr or perhaps even Commons, (3) help us find reviewers for articles on scientific topics, (4) provide "Cite in Wikipedia" tools, (5) organize some workshops for Springer employees on Creative Commons licensing and Wikimedia projects, (6) set up banner ads for WikiProject Open Access or some such, and so on. -- Daniel Mietchen - WiR/OS (talk) 23:23, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • This is excellent journalism and I feel proud that this is published in 'The Signpost. I can imagine that many publishers will be presenting this article to all of their staff. Congratulations user:Tony1 on creating a fantastic article! Here are Twitter links to the parties mentioned in this article if anyone wants to follow the buzz. @SpringerSBM @EvoMRI @petermurrayrust Blue Rasberry (talk) 20:19, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • The above mentioned link to Springer's statement doesn't work any more. Here ist a workongt link to the statement. (talk) 22:01, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Are you kidding me? Some person thinks he can claim copyright over a public domain? This is worse than Nintendo vs. Universal Studios! gtajaxoxo ©® 10:52, 13 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

This is precisely why I mark all of my own-work uploads as PD-self — if they want to use my uploads, people are probably going to ignore the licensing terms if I impose any, so what's the point? I have better things to do than checking up on license infringmenet, and as I'm glad to have my images used elsewhere, it's more pleasant for me to know that people aren't violating my rights. Nyttend (talk) 20:36, 14 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Has Wikipedia every violated the copyrights owned by Springer Verlag, Birkhauser, etc.? Kiefer.Wolfowitz 22:10, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

I am sure we have for brief periods of time. But we have no generated profit from it. --Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 22:16, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
No "buts", please. Amateur copyright theft does not seem to get special treatment in law, and Wikipedia's copyright violations should not be pooh-poohed. I would suggest less self-righteousness in discussing Wikipedia and the firm of Julius Springer. Kiefer.Wolfowitz 14:54, 15 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Certainly I am all for getting rid of Wikipedians who plagiarize and have never pooh poohed this issue. We have had some prominent editors leave us over this. I am also for putting in place more measures to preventing this from occurring in the future. We had a bot in the past that used to check I think. Re activating this should be a top priority if it is not already going again. I have removed a fair bit of plagiarism myself and have been just short of informing students universities regarding content that they have added here which is plagiarism. Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 15:06, 15 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Agreed, the profit motive is an important distinction. Additionally:
  • Individual photographers, not Wikipedia as an entity, are the ones whose rights are being violated; so that would not be a parallel instance; and
  • I'm pretty confident that any such violations are routinely identified within our community and removed (without the need for the copyright holder to police Wikipedia). -Pete (talk) 22:36, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Your confidence is misplaced, but such wishful thinking is common on Wikipedia. We have good people at the copyright-violation project, some WMF employees, who regularly rewrite articles while stating that they do not regard the violation as important---although it was important enough to justify an good writer's time! Persons without my overwhelming charity might suspect that such statements avoid leaving a paper-trail of culpability. Examine my edits when I cleaned up Freedom in the World, and about 8 other articles one day last summer, if you want to see a cluster of years-old copyright violations. Kiefer.Wolfowitz 14:54, 15 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

It is not just images that are borrowed without attribution

Per here this textbook has borrowed many thousands of words from us. The New York Times today has further details regarding the issue here Book That Plagiarized From Wikipedia Is Pulled From Market published June 12th, 2012.

Response from the publisher

Dear Dr. Heilman and Mr. Cohen

We have received your mails concerning text in Understanding and Management of Special Child in Pediatric Dentistry. We have taken the matter up with the editors of the book and the contributors to the chapter in question. We take care to ensure the veracity of texts, but in this case our systems appear to have failed. However, we have decided to permanently withdraw the book from sale, and we will remove the title from our website and recall the book from our wholesalers and distributors. Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. Yours Sincerely Tarun Duneja Director:Publishing

Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers Pvt Ltd

Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 22:15, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Absolutely true, Doc - some of my own writing I've done here has been taken and published on at least two occasions via (relatively minor) direct copy-and-paste in two different peer-reviewed oncology journals - see my User page for the cites and details :-) Best regards: Cliff (a/k/a "Uploadvirus") (talk) 01:45, 13 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I think if more people spent time looking then many cases would be discovered. That is a great catch and a great New York Times post describing this Wikipedia article reuse! Blue Rasberry (talk) 14:51, 14 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Agreed. I also want to draw all of your attention to Baidu Baike, the Chinese-equivalent wiki encyclopedia that agrees to censor by central Chinese government. We have documented their blatant copyright infringement. Since Baidu is actually listed on NASDAQ, I really believe that WMF can do something about this because both have operations in the US. OhanaUnitedTalk page 14:58, 14 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

I am not sure that it would be in anyone's interest for the Wikimedia Foundation to start this fight. I regret that content on that site is being stolen and misused. Thank you a lot for pointing out this page - that is fascinating. Blue Rasberry (talk) 21:07, 14 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Simply do an image search of any of our images with Google. Than bring your cursor over the image and click on "more sizes". Here is an example of an image of mine [1]. Has be borrowed by the like of the University of Iowa among others with no attribution given.Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 22:23, 12 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]


Springer has generated profit for itself with our images. Perhaps it could grant a site license to us and benefit the work of Wikipedians. Since the Foundation is downright cheap when it comes to getting Wikipedians the resources they need such as access to JSTOR or Lexis-Nexis, we need to find other paths.--Wehwalt (talk) 12:21, 13 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

What price would you suggest? Kiefer.Wolfowitz 14:56, 15 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I would suggest that they fund a Wikipedian in Residence in their own offices to support Wikipedia and to train their staff about contemporary Internet culture. There is a bit more of this line of talk here on WikiProject Open Access. Blue Rasberry (talk) 15:01, 15 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Law in the UK

Various legal cases in the UK -- for instance, the recent House of Harlot case, or last year's David Hoffman case -- have awarded standard National Union of Journalists' photography rates of at least £250 per photograph per annum for misused photographs -- even though the photographs in question were taken down straight away (Harlot), or had been used on the assurance of the website designer that they were copyright-cleared (Hoffman). In the Harlot case £675 was awarded for one photo, plus £50 for moral rights, plus costs. In the Hoffman case £12,444.57 was awarded for 19 photographs, including interest.

Springer should be aware that an apology may not be sufficient -- this could get expensive.

As indeed so should we be, if wrongly attributed or falsely licensed photographs are uploaded here. To some extent WP can rely on service provider notification-and-take-down safe harbour provisions; but this is an area that cannot be seen as something trivial, and must not be treated casually. Jheald (talk) 12:24, 13 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Not just journals

But all kinds of media and it happened to myself.

Compare this: commons:File:Wave_in_Lake_Ontario.jpg and this: [2] on National Post in Canada.

I am the copyright holder of the said image for being the creator. SYSS Mouse (talk) 17:08, 14 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Hmm... it looks like they mentioned your name but did not provide a link to the source of the image wherein the licensing terms could be found. Did you contact them about this? Blue Rasberry (talk) 21:03, 14 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Related Signpost article

There was an incident about 2 years ago that was documented by Signpost which also involved plagiarism/failure to attribute properly. Since then, the book publisher acknowledged the error on their part, recalled the book, and offered a 350 HKD (~45 USD) per non-wiki photo (i.e. Flickr, Panoramio, etc.) and 50 HKD (6.5 USD) per wiki photo as compensation as of February 2012. OhanaUnitedTalk page 02:42, 15 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

What do we expect by hiding the licence and attribution requirements?

Not so much hiding, but on the file page putting them underneath the picture display in a bland grey box, couched in multiple bullets that fail to alert many downloaders. "It's free, isn't it?", is likely to be the default attitude. The actual constraints are likely to be buried in this ethic.

I believe there's some opposition among Commons editors to placing at the top a short, polite but firm reminder that there are licencing and attribution requirements ("Please see these requirements below ...".) Apparently there's a fear that such a message at the top shifts perceptions too far towards author/photographer ownership.

The matter should be revisited, since the failure to correctly licence partly defeats our purpose, and the failure to name authors/photographers (where required) is both unfair and militates against donations. Tony (talk) 00:23, 16 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]

I was just having a look at Commons photographs again since this article and thinking the same thing. The problem is ignorance more than thoughtful intent to deceive and steal. I think that organizations would be interested in learning more about how to reuse content properly if there were a system by means of which they could learn these things on a predictable schedule. I also think that more organizations would be willing to donate content if they had any way of learning how that would affect them and what that would mean. Blue Rasberry (talk) 15:25, 16 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Ninety-nine per cent of society does not care about copyright. With the Internet, it is conveniently but regrettably trivial to reuse copyrighted material without permission or adherence to license requirements. Copyright topics simpy are not taught in schools. Teachers feel free to pull images off Google Images for their own lectures. There is a culture in the classroom that does not take copyright seriously because everyone knows it has become unenforceable. Most people have no idea how to comply with any license other than the CC0. And they think it's normal and acceptable to take media from any site for use in whatever they need. No one tattles on the Happy Birthday singers at restaurants—no one even realizes the song is still copyrighted. And because most authors do not actively pursue unsanctioned reuse of their work, people assume that no one cares. And because the situation hasn't yet caused people to stop producing creative works, we all just go along thinking that it's not a serious issue at all. Of course, it usually isn't; we're nitpicking at Springer et al here—they wouldn't pay to use freely licensed images either way, so it doesn't hurt us. But the problem is just a culture of ignorance and apathy toward copyright concepts. (talk) 03:47, 21 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
    • Displaying the license more prominently will not solve anything. We all routinely ignore those threats of copyright protection and so on. A more watertight solution would be to watermark attribution (and other data as required by the respective licenses) on images whenever they are downloaded or used outside of Wikimedia articles. No one steals low-resolution thumbnails and uses them for anything other than a fourth-grade science fair project. (talk) 03:51, 21 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Might be worth noting this related bug (and the others it links to) -- WMF recently fixed some more egregious license problems on the mobile site and mobile app. But I very much agree with Tony: our pages in general (articles, media, etc.) should do a much better job of conveying copyright status to the reader. If we can build some consensus here about what is the best path forward, I think that would be a great start. -Pete (talk) 13:58, 28 June 2012 (UTC)[reply]


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