is one of the preeminent
examples of what can be done in an open setting; it has, over the years,
accumulated millions of articles - many of them excellent - in a large
number of languages. Wikipedia also has a bit of a licensing problem,
but it would appear that recent events, including the release of a
new license by the Free Software Foundation, offers a way out.
Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). The
GFDL has been covered here a number of times; it is, to put it mildly, a
controversial document. Its anti-DRM provisions are sufficiently broad
that, by some peoples' interpretation, a simple "chmod -r" on
a GFDL-licensed file is a violation. But the biggest complaint has to do
with the GFDL's notion of "invariant sections." These sections must be
propagated unchanged with any copy (or derived work) of the original
document. The GFDL itself must also be included with any copies. So a
one-page excerpt from the GNU Emacs manual, for example, must be
accompanied by several dozen pages of material, including the original GNU
So the GFDL has come to be seen by many as more of a tool for the
propagation of FSF propaganda than a license for truly free documentation. Much of the
community avoids this license; some groups, such as the Debian Project, see
it as non-free. Many projects which still do use the GFDL make a clear
point of avoiding (or disallowing outright) the use of cover texts,
invariant sections, and other GFDL features. Some projects have dropped
the GFDL; in many cases, they have moved to the Creative Commons
attribution-sharealike license which retains the copyleft provisions of the
GFDL without most of the unwanted baggage.
Members of the Wikipedia project have wanted to move away from the GFDL for
some time. They have a problem, though: like the Linux kernel, Wikipedia
does not require copyright assignments from its contributors. So any
relicensing of Wikipedia content would require the permission of all the
contributors. For a project on the scale of Wikipedia, the chances of
simply finding all of the contributors - much less getting them to
agree on a license change - are about zero. So Wikipedia, it seems, is
stuck with its current license.
There is one exception, though. The Wikipedia
copyright policy, under which contributions are accepted, reads like
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this
document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License,
Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software
Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts,
and with no Back-Cover Texts.
The presence of the "or any later version" language allows Wikipedia
content to be distributed under the terms of later versions of the GFDL
with no need to seek permission from individual contributors.
Surprisingly, the Wikimedia Foundation has managed to get the Free Software
Foundation to cooperate in the use of the "or any later version" permission
to carry out an interesting legal hack.
On November 3, the FSF and the Wikimedia Foundation jointly announced the release of
version 1.3 of the GFDL. This announcement came as a surprise to
many, who had no idea that a new GFDL 1.x release was in the works. This
update does not address any of the well-known complaints against the GFDL.
Instead, it added a new section:
An MMC [Massive Multiauthor Collaboration Site] is "eligible for
relicensing" if it is licensed under this License, and if all works
that were first published under this License somewhere other than
this MMC, and subsequently incorporated in whole or in part into
the MMC, (1) had no cover texts or invariant sections, and (2) were
thus incorporated prior to November 1, 2008.
The operator of an MMC Site may republish an MMC contained in the
site under CC-BY-SA on the same site at any time before August 1,
2009, provided the MMC is eligible for relicensing.
In other words, GFDL-licensed sites like Wikipedia have a special,
nine-month window in which they can relicense their content to the Creative
Commons attribution-sharealike license. This works because (1) moving
to version 1.3 of the license is allowed under the "or any later
version" terms, and (2) relicensing to CC-BY-SA is allowed by
Legal codes, like other kinds of code, have a certain tendency to pick up
cruft as they are patched over time. In this case, the FSF has added a
special, time-limited hack which lets Wikipedia make a graceful exit from
the GFDL license regime. This move is surprising to many, who would not
have guessed that the FSF would go for it. Lawrence Lessig, who calls the
change "enormously important," expresses
it this way:
Richard Stallman deserves enormous credit for enabling this change
to occur. There were some who said RMS would never permit Wikipedia
to be relicensed, as it is one of the crown jewels in his movement
for freedom. And so it is: like the GNU/Linux operation system,
which his movement made possible, Wikipedia was made possible by
the architecture of freedom the FDL enabled. One could well
understand a lesser man finding any number of excuses for blocking
For whatever reason, Stallman and the FSF chose to go along with this
change, though not before adding some safeguards. The November 1
cutoff date (which precedes the GFDL 1.3 announcement) is there to
prevent troublemakers from posting FSF manuals to Wikipedia in their
entirety, and, thus, relicensing them.
Now that Wikipedia has its escape clause, it needs to decide how to
respond. The plan would appear to be
Later this month, we will post a re-licensing proposal for all
Wikimedia wikis which are currently licensed under the GFDL. It
will be collaboratively developed on meta.wiki and I will announce
it here. This re-licensing proposal will include a simplified
dual-licensing proposition, under which content will continue to be
indefinitely available under GFDL, except for articles which
include CC-BY-SA-only additions from external sources. (The terms
of service, under this proposal, will be modified to require
dual-licensing permission for any new changes.)
This proposal will be followed by a "community-wide referendum," with a
majority vote deciding whether the new policy will be adopted or not.
Expect some interesting discussions over the next month.
This series of events highlights a couple of important points to keep in
mind when considering copyright and licensing for a project. There is a
certain simplicity and egalitarianism inherent in allowing contributors to
retain their copyrights. But it does also limit a project's ability to
recover from a suboptimal license choice later on. Licensing inflexibility
can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view, but it
is certainly something which could be kept in mind.
The other thing to be aware of is just how much power the "or any later
version" text puts into the hands of the FSF. The license promises that
later versions will be "similar in spirit," but the GPLv3 debate made it
clear that similarity of spirit is in the eye of the beholder. It is not
immediately obvious that allowing text to be relicensed (to a license
controlled by a completely different organization) is in the "spirit" of
the original GFDL. Your editor suspects that most contributors will be
willing to accept this change, but there may be some who feel that their
trust was abused.
Finally, it's worth noting that "any later version" includes
GFDL 2.0. The discussion draft of
this major license upgrade has been available for comments for a full two
years now. The FSF has not said anything about when it plans to move
forward with the new license, but it seems clear that anybody wanting to
comment on this draft would be well advised to do so soon.
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