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Wikimedia Commons mission: free media for the world or only Wikimedia projects?

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By Delirium, TeleComNasSprVen, and Thryduulf
Three weeks ago, the Signpost ran an article on the Wikimedia Commons entitled "Wikimedia chapters and communities challenge Commons' URAA policy". Non-US editors and chapters have taken issue with a multitude of image deletions done to comply with the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, a US law that brought the country into compliance with the Berne Convention. By doing so, they granted or regranted copyright protection to several works that have entered the public domain in their countries of origin. Many supporters of these actions have noted that the deletions ensure that images on the Commons are free for all to use, not just users in some countries, while one opposer characterized the actions as a "extremist interpretation of an intra-American affair."
We asked three users for their perspective on a related issue: is the Commons primarily a repository of free media for the world, as stated on its welcome page, or should it limit itself to being a media repository for the various Wikimedia projects?

Delirium: a distinction without a difference

To me the question of whether Wikimedia Commons is primarily a repository of free media for the world, or primarily a media repository for the Wikimedia projects, should ideally be a distinction without a difference. I'm primarily active in Wikipedia, not on Commons, and I visit Commons mostly in its "supporting role" when I need to add images to Wikipedia articles. But we all have the goal of producing free content for the world. Copyright law is a mess with a lot of gray area, so in practice things aren't ideal, and different groups of Wikimedians may have different views of how to navigate the morass. But I think the goals are, or should be, the same: to produce free content that's reusable, remixable, and republishable (in theory and in actual practice), by ourselves and others, to spread knowledge worldwide. To that end, a media repository for the Wikimedia projects should also be a repository of free media, and work to fulfill both roles!

I personally am not very active on Commons, and mainly edit Wikipedia. But I nonetheless find Commons to support the mission of the other projects very well. In its support role for Wikipedia, I find Commons' close attention to being a "repository of free media for the world" quite valuable. I live in Denmark, and for various reasons I want to reuse excerpts of the English Wikipedia. Unfortunately for me, the English Wikipedia makes extensive use of U.S.-specific copyright exceptions, such as the pre-1923 rule and American fair-use law. So, articles need to have their media sanitized to be safe to reuse in Denmark. Here is a simple semi-automated heuristic I use: if any image is hosted at Commons, keep it; if an image is locally hosted on, flag it for review or replacement. In effect I defer to the vetting of the Commons community for copyright review of media. This works fairly well, and helps me reuse content from Wikipedia. So from my own perspective, I find the mission of Commons to provide a free media repository for the world very much in line with its mission to support the other Wikimedia projects. Many projects are a bit loose on verifying the actual free-content reusability of their images, but Commons takes that job seriously, greatly enhancing the reusability of all Wikimedia projects.

Mark Nelson is a professor at the IT University of Copenhagen. He has been a Wikipedian and an administrator on the English Wikipedia since 2003.

TeleComNasSprVen: optimistic about receding CoI

Wikimedia Commons’ mission is, as its tagline suggests, to provide "a database of 20,536,186 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute". However, Wikimedia Commons is also hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, and I believe was originally set up in order to serve as a centralized database of media content to be served to all the various language editions of Wikipedia. With respect to the WMF, the mission of Commons therefore stands in a conflict of interest; originally designed by Wikimedians, its first responsibility was also for Wikimedians. With the advent of InstantCommons however, now all wikis regardless of their affiliation with Wikimedia could access the large database of freely licensed files at Commons by merely installing a simple extension. Commons now serves more than the Wikimedia Foundation, it serves a wide variety of public wiki-based organizations as well. Like Wikipedia, which caters its main content to the public in the form of encyclopedic articles, Commons serves to cater its main content to the public in the form of a wide range of freely licensed and freely accessible media files.

There is still a rather large pro-WMF bias prevalent around Wikimedia Commons however. There is a common misconception that Commons serves as central repository for any kind of free media file. However, Commons frequently rejects or deletes files that do not comply with the CC-BY-SA guidelines, or files considered outside the scope of the project, defined at Commons:Project scope. Files that are vaguely licensed as "free for use" or "use on Wikipedia" are sometimes rejected/deleted, and files which serve no educational purpose (a rather vague and much debated criterion) are also nominated for deletion at For the purpose of Commons, "excluded content serving no educational purpose" are typically "vanity" files, images of non-notable companies (here the bias towards Wikipedia’s notability criterion shows), and, barring obvious educational potential, pages that are not in use on any other Wikimedia project. Even if a media file were freely licensed, Commons sometimes rejects/deletes the file submissions, and asks its uploaders to use other free file-sharing or file-hosting websites for their own purposes instead, such as Flickr or Picasa which might be more willing to accept such images.

Like any of the big Wikimedia wikis, Wikimedia Commons suffers from its own various problems, some of which are easily solvable and some which are not. At least with the advent of the InstantCommons MediaWiki extension, I am optimistic that Commons is moving further away from its dependence as a primarily Wikimedia site to one which can better serve a more global community. It is hoped that while Commons considers its host, the Wikimedia Foundation, important in running its day-to-day activities, and Wikimedians for supplying some of its content, Commons can also achieve its designed primary purpose as "a database of 20,536,186 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute".

TeleComNasSprVen is a frequent editor of the Commons, with 45,000 edits since he registered in 2010.

Thryduulf: change is needed

Wikimedia Commons defines itself as a media repository with two goals: [to make] available public domain and freely licensed educational media content to all, and [to act] as a common repository for the various projects of the Wikimedia Foundation.

However, based on the observed actions of the Commons community, in particular the choice of which files need to be deleted, I feel that the project today could be more accurately be described as:

A repository for educational media files that are either: Explicitly and provably released under a free license; or Public domain according to the laws of the United States and the source country.

Notable is the absence of reference to the other Wikimedia projects. Further narrowing the utility to the wider Wikimedia family is the way these criteria are interpreted—the impression one gets is that if anyone disputes that a file is free, it will be deleted regardless of the merits of the concern. Just as administrators on other projects require no formal qualifications, admins at Commons are not required to have any legal training at all. Indeed I have heard Commons admins and nominators for deletion described as being amateur lawyers overly obsessed with copyright (although using rather less polite language), and is hard to disagree with that characterisation at times.

In discussions, most people who are Commons administrators fail to see any problem with the ultra-conservative approach to acceptability. Indeed, if one’s goal is to solely be a repository of media that can be freely used by anybody in every imaginable circumstance, then this is arguably the best policy to have. However, that is only part of Commons’ self-declared scope.

What the projects want and need, and what they would like Commons to be, is a reliable repository of files they can use to illustrate, their encyclopaedia articles, dictionary entries, books, etc. Where Commons takes a hard line view of copyright issues, most projects seem to take a more pragmatic approach—for example, there is a desire to have access to media that is out of copyright for all practical purposes, where there remains only the theoretical possibility that someone may have a copyright claim or where the chances of a copyright owner actually choosing to enforce their copyright are pretty much indistinguishable from “none”. This, relaxed “keep it unless we get a valid takedown notice”, approach to the issue is the one that appears to match the Foundation board’s view, taken in consultation with legal advice.

The way deletions on Commons are handled, particularly the observed extreme reluctance to inform anyone other than the image uploader of a deletion nomination (such as the watchers of articles using the media), seemingly arbitrary durations to discussions and the apparent irrelevance in many cases of any discussion that does occur, means that Commons is not at present a reliable host of media for the projects. In many cases the first people are aware that images that have been in use on a page for years have been questioned is when the images have been deleted.

As far as I can see, only four possible ways forward for the short term have been identified.

  1. The first is no change, and this seems to be favoured by the majority of Commons admins and others who view the Commons mission as being entirely a repository of absolutely free media. It is the least popular option among the majority of others who have commented.
  2. The second option is to change Commons to match what the projects want it to be—i.e. more relaxed about what they host. This is fiercely opposed by the current admins and those who misunderstand this as a request for Commons to host fair use material (it explicitly is not).
  3. Thirdly is a return to projects or chapters hosting their own images. This is least efficient option by far, and could be storing up problems for the future. Nevertheless it is an option not ruled out by the Israeli and Argentinian chapters among others.
  4. Finally, and possibly most radically, is to set up a second media repository with the sole mission of hosting content for the Wikimedia projects. Undoubtedly there will be technical hurdles to overcome, but most that have been identified are trivial and none are insurmountable. This option is probably the least favoured overall in terms of raw numbers, but if change is desired and the current Commons community cannot be persuaded to go for option two, then it may be the best.

I am firmly in the “change is needed” camp, and local project hosting does not feel to me like a good thing in the long term. Whether I prefer changing or supplementing Commons though is not such an easy call to make. Possibly the additional repository is the less optimal one, particularly if longer-term actions such as campaigning for changes to copyright laws bear fruit. Although on the other hand the risks of breaking the community from changing Commons against its will might be the greater?

I don’t know the answer, and ultimately it is something only the Wikimedia community can decide. Still, a decision does need to be made and refusing to engage with the discussion does no group any favours.

Thryduulf was an admin on the Commons from December 2005 until he let the position lapse in February 2008 due to inactivity. He is currently active there as an uploader and categoriser.
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I personally use Commons for most of my articles when it comes to pictures in Wikipedia. I personally have no complaint with their copyrights. Its good practice that Wikimedia Commons sometimes have "free" images which are authentic and can be used freely within Wikipedia.--Mishae (talk) 05:22, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Note, I've written up a revised version of my opinion piece at Google docs (I think it is only viewable for those with a Google account) but after seeing Thryduulf's essay I think leaving the current version as is may also be fine. @Thryduulf: On "where the chances of a copyright owner actually choosing to enforce their copyright are pretty much indistinguishable from “none”" I think Commons recently had some discussion about the possibility of incorporating Orphan Works (works where the copyright owner is dead or cannot be contacted) but that discussion has fizzled out again. Perhaps I'll try and reignite that in the future. On "the observed extreme reluctance to inform anyone other than the image uploader of a deletion nomination" the lack of communication on the part of Commons towards pending deletion of files used on local projects, so that they might be notified for transfer under fair use, is something that has bothered Commons for years. Unfortunately old proposals like the global deleted image review and an option to display warnings as image captions when an image being used is pending deletion has sat in the backlog of Bugzilla tickets awaiting resolution since forever. TeleComNasSprVen (talkcontribs) 05:58, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
I would find it pretty easy to create a bot to provide deletion warning notices to Wikipedia, this does not need WMF development to solve. If someone were to write up clear requirements for it (for example that a brief notice with a link to the Commons deletion request appears on every article talk page that uses an image), I think this is an easy one to propose at Wikipedia:Bot Approvals Group. Notices on the English Wikipedia are an issue for this community, not the Commons community. -- (talk) 07:48, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Yes we need change at Commons. Common sense is required as much law is simply unknown as it has never been tested. Doc James (talk · contribs · email) (if I write on your page reply on mine) 07:16, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

You can add your thoughts here: m:Requests for comment/Creation of a Global Wikimedia Commons. That discussion appears to have stagnated before I could get my head around the sort of change desired exactly. Jane (talk) 09:39, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

It's good in general, but loose wording has:

  • allowed the "police" at English Wikipedia have to run amok using it as a justification. Specifically, trying to harass fair use uses out of out of existence, which has had an immense impact on the quality and quantity of available images.
  • It needs a provision to allow for a slightly more restrictive license. For example, one where a celebrity would be allowing use of the their image for the intended types of uses, but not to use for free on t-shirts and coffee mugs, or as the front page of the Nazi party magazine. All of which one must OK under the currently required free licenses.

Sincerely, North8000 (talk) 13:51, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

I 100% agree that it is an incredibly damaging mistake not to make use of the American "Fair Use" exemption to the fullest extent of the law. I also agree that the fighting of fair use rationales on photo uploads by some of the free culture cheerleaders working the Photo Rights gig at WP verges at times on harassment. They love their automation and their power. Carrite (talk) 15:57, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Commons has eyes that are bigger than its belly... It should be what it was intended to be, a mechanism for sharing encyclopedia illustrations across language encyclopedias. But, compliments of its bizarre and mutating culture, it has assumed for itself the mantle of "Curator of All Free Images For the Entire Universe (Don't Censor Me, Maaaaaaan)." It's ridiculous. Anything with a remotely conceivable educational application — emphasis on the words remotely conceivable — is "in" for them. It has little, if anything, to do with the actual needs of Wikipedia Worldwide, which involves solving rights issues and propagating images across Wikipedias. It is a collection for obsessive collectors, or rather a gathering for obsessive gatherers. Scrape those internet photo sites and save everything, regardless if the posted licenses were tagged on in good faith or not... WMF has the power to shut down this circus. It's not yet on their To Do list. It will be someday. Carrite (talk) 15:53, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

I started publishing my photographs (of plants and animals) in Flickr with a CC BY-SA 2.0 license. I visited Commons first when one of my friends there posted a comment on one of my picture: “thanks for publishing this picture with a free license; I published it at Commons.” I visited the URL he provided. I had visited Wikipedia earlier for gathering information; but never Commons. Later I started uploading my best works here. Once I got a message that stated one your work is reviewed and awarded as a Quality Image (It was nominated by 99of9). I got some constructive criticism too that rarely happen in Flickr. Slowly I liked the environment and started participating in FP, QI, and VI.

My opinion about Commons is that it is as good as Flickr; both have very good scope in providing good quality educational media content for everyone who needs it. The main differences are: 1) Commons is part of WMF projects; so serves as a repository for the various WMF projects too; whereas Flickr has no own projects; it serve the outside world including Commons through their CC licensed and public domain contents. 2) Flickr allows the authors/publishers full control over their contents; whereas any can edit and distort contents once uploaded in Commons. The so called self serving volunteers overwrite, rename, and try to apply all their personal interests over the original source files breaking all the code of ethics and license terms. Most of these volunteers are editing under pseudonyms; so little chances to get sued. 3) Flickr allows a user to stop publishing to his works (due to any reasons); but in Commons we have to beg for the mercy of the community even though all licenses clearly allow it. 4) Flickr allows only own works and other works from trusted publishers. But in Commons most of the contents are uploaded by third parties. Most of such files are poorly documented (attribution, third party rights, etc), as the uploaders have not much interest in such things. Their only interest is to collect as many hats like I made x million uploads to Commons etc.

There are so many such things and area where Commons is struggling; but it is a useful project for people who need good educational media contents. And my answer to “is the Commons primarily a repository of free media for the world, as stated on its welcome page, or should it limit itself to being a media repository for the various Wikimedia projects?” is always “yes”. Even the question itself is meaningless as “the contents in all Wikimedia projects (other than some fare use contents) are for the entire world. (Disclaimer: Just a quick comment; not enough time to write well, now.) Jee 16:00, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

@Jee: Do you mean "yes" to the former "a repository of free media for the world" or to the latter "a media repository for the various Wikimedia projects"? Also in terms of page curation, do you think the precautionary principle, erring on the side of deletion, is not conservative or deletionist enough? Or perhaps Commons is not doing well enough to warn uploaders about CC licenses before they hit the upload button (my opinion)? TeleComNasSprVen (talkcontribs) 20:32, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
@TeleComNasSprVen: Yes; I meant "Commons should be a repository of free media for the entire world". Wikipedia is just one player in educational area; there are many equally competing players like EOL, GBIF, Catalogue of Life, etc (to name a few from my area of interest).
Answer to your second question: Deletion is the only area where Commons do something good in terms of maintenance. It is very poor in protecting author's interests and fail to educate contributors too (before they hit the upload button as you said above). These may be probably because many of our decision making volunteers are "free culture activists" who has no respect in author's (and subject's) rights. I had communicated with many users who later tried to revoke the license and my understanding is that they usually failed to understand that a free license grant is applicable to the entire world. Most of them contributed to help Wikipedia only. It is our mistake if we failed to educate them properly. And all I see in such DRs are heavy personal attacks from our side and applying a Change-of-license template on their works. Those users will never grant a free license to their work in their entire future life. :( Jee 02:38, 24 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
In that case, welcoming you was one of the most valuable contributions I've made to Commons! Hopefully a good reminder to us all to go out and notice the contributions of newbies. --99of9 (talk) 23:57, 23 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks 99of9. And I believe such a friendly care will encourage newbies to stay here and continue making more valuable contributions to Commons, directly. Otherwise people prefer to stay in their comfortable projects (like Flickr) and volunteers have to manually transfer contents in a day to day basis which is not very productive. :) Jee 02:38, 24 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Jee, thanks for your thoughts and story of activity - it is so rare to see an image promoted to be a Quality Image that without checking I assume your photos are really good. I found your perspective really interesting to read, and I agree with most of your points, though I would like to point out that a lot of overwrites occur in good faith and not all changes to files are "self-serving". I am glad you decided to come over to Commons from Flickr. Do you still publish pictures on Flickr and if so, what drives your choice between posting to Commons or Flickr? Jane (talk) 09:15, 24 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks Jane. I'm still active in Flickr and have a reasonable network of friends (although I'm in a photography break due to my relocation to a different place of stay). I prefer to publish my works first in Flickr as I've more control over the files there. I publish them in Commons only after verification and identifications are over. The support groups are more stronger and helpful than here.
Overwriting: CC recently made some amendments on their policies during the release of version 4.0: 1. Modifications and adaptations must be indicated 2. URI required 3. Licensors may request removal of attribution. All these three changes are to protect the interest of the authors from any insults. For version 4.0 onward, Original Source should be kept intact, and any minute modification should be mentioned with a link to source. But some Commons people still think keeping the original source file buried under file page history is enough (which is not true). Whenever CC mention a link, it means a place where attribution and all other related information readily available to the reader without any hassle. I switched to version 4.0 for all of my future uploads. Jee 11:50, 24 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Interesting, thanks for spelling this out - I myself have done lots of overwrites, usually to upload higher resolutions of PD-Art that are already linked to more projects. The past year or so I noticed that Google Art images are being added separately and then the links in the sister projects updated by bot. Generally I put "Higher res" in my overwrite description and then put a link to my source in the Source field (and many times the original source field was blank, or linked to some historical website or royals website (for portraits)). I was blissfully unaware of the finesses of CC law that you have just stipulated, but since I tend to make most of my edits to 17th century paintings, it probably doesn't matter much. Jane (talk) 08:18, 25 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

This is just one issue, there have been more. What I propose is that the whole architecture of meta data of media files is considered. I wrote about this in a blog post. Discussing this at this time is opportune because in the second half of 2014 Wikidata and Commons will start sharing functionality and data. Wikidata is not about individual projects so it makes sense to consider the whole issue of media files. Thanks, GerardM (talk) 09:25, 24 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

If one asks me I think that Commons should continue the way that it is, that is to say a free educational media repository for all. I think, just like Wikisource is not for Wikipedia, but merely is useful to Wikipedia, the same should be for Commons. Commons has its own community and its own mission and the question of whether or not Commons wants to be a free educational media repository or a free media repository for Wikimedia projects ought to be posed to them to decide for themselves.

As far as their policies for deletion and the like go, I think they do a great job at what they do, though of course there is room for improvement. The process could be a bit smoother and people using the media, at least on WMF projects, really ought to be informed when it is up for deletion. Zell Faze (talk) 16:40, 25 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]

  • @Vchimpanzee: I think technically speaking Wikipedia is republishing Wikimedia Commons files under an appropriate CC-BY-SA license and it attributes the file on Commons as the original, so it should be fine. Remember that CC-BY-SA also requires all subsequent copies/derivatives of a file be distributed under the same or similar copyleft license. TeleComNasSprVen (talkcontribs) 15:44, 26 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • See Commons:Reusing content outside Wikimedia: "The Wikimedia Foundation owns almost none of the content on Wikimedia sites — it is owned by the individual creators." "Content in the public domain may not have a strict legal requirement of attribution (depending on the jurisdiction of content reuse), but attribution is recommended to give correct provenance." All other contents MUST to be properly attributed to the copyright holder; not just to Wiki[m/p]edia. Jee 17:24, 26 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • Far as I see, serving the pedias is the primary mission. If the rest of the world wants to use Commons pictures, that's pleasant. I have seen my own Commons pictures in local newspapers, brochures, and the Web site of a small travel agency, and presumbably there are far more that I haven't seen. Pleasant, but there's little need to work at making it happen. Is that bias? Yes, and why not? The main advantage of Commons over bigger picture distributors is its closeness to Wikipedia. Even though only a small fraction appear in articles, that's the best way for outsiders find our pictures. Commons uses Wiki software which allows every fool with an agenda to edit, same as the pedias. My own pictures have benefited from improved categorization, expanded descriptions and, in a few cases, photo editing by people more skilled at that business than me. Main disadvantage of Commons being part of the Wikimedia empire is the close attention, one might say obsession, to the principle of free software, which has crippled the use of video. So, tyro photographers who want their pictures to talk and move, mostly go to Youtube and the like, where ordinary people who don't know what a "file format" is can see them. Jim.henderson (talk) 10:04, 27 March 2014 (UTC)[reply]


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