Wiki Copy Rights

I'm working on a white paper for SIGS. I'd like to put in a "History of Patterns" section, borrowing directly from HistoryOfPatterns.

  1. What are the copyright ramifications?
  2. Who should I credit as contributors?


This repository has a stated policy (http://c2.com/ppr/about/copyright.html) which can be summarized ...

Q:Hey, the summary below doesn't say the same thing as the "stated policy" given above. Which is right? A: The above [1] was written at the founding of the repository and would have to take precedence over that below should there in fact be a conflict.

WikiWikiWeb introduces the possibility of anonymous joint authorship which might confuse ownership, though in practice I suspect there are precedents for any case that actually occurs. Without yet declaring policy, I offer the following as clarifications of my intent...

So, Cope can use verbatim the sections of history that he wrote, including anonymous corrections and additions. Other material can be quoted, paraphrased and/or referenced consistent with FairUse. He should also seek confirmation of historical facts from independent sources, since material is published in this database without any verification. -- WardCunningham

See also HowToCiteWiki.


You can never be sure that anything is written by the person who claimed to write it. This means that it is hard to be sure that the history is accurate, since you don't know your source. The WikiWikiWeb is just a high-tech form of writing on the bathroom wall. -- AlanKay (Not really, just proof in point.)

I recommend people try to contact the original authors and get permission to quote. Where comments are signed, and people have filled in a home page with their email address, this is straightforward. The fact that the comment first appeared on a WikiWiki page then becomes irrelevant. -- DaveHarris


Q: Can I take unsigned pages relevant only to wiki use? I would like to start my own wiki based on the perl code distributed at the wikibase. I would like to copy the pages that were written primarily to help new users get over the first few moments of questions about wiki. -- JohnRepici

A: It would be FairUse if you quoted wiki modestly and included a proper link or citation. (See HowToCiteWiki.) Taking pages from this site and posting them as your own would not. -- WardCunningham


Recent speculation has suggested that anonymous contributions truly belong to their respective authors, and not the repository. This means that the repository can't go and publish a book of anonymous contributions. Being not a lawyer, I cannot really say, but I believe the Berne convention affords this right. Consequently, as our policy attempts to merely reflect the default, I changed the http://usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?MeatballWikiCopyright so that Meatball does not treat anonymous contributions differently. However, I recognize that due to the inability for the site to confirm authorship, (legally) claiming to own an anonymous contribution is tenuous at best. -- SunirShah

Don't know the meaning of "recent" in the above statement. However, in Mar05, when I enquired about the possibility of another public wiki to host management related material, Sunir said this copying would violate copyright (see http://www.usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?action=browse&diff=1&id=AlexSchroeder around 25Mar05). I like the statement further down about PrimarilyPublicDomain, in the case of (heaven forbid) closing of this wiki. -- dl


I am struck at the divergence between a software system set up intentionally to allow 'extreme co-authorship' and a conversation about who owns the results. I'm inclined to put some kind of collective property license on the Wiki I'm running, granting full rights to all six billion and counting humans and whatever other sentient species can figure out how to log on to it. -- JohnAbbe

Yes, this is a problem. See http://usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?MeatballWikiCopyrightDiscussion for this hashed out at length. Basically, though, there is a difference between giving to the community and taking from the community. The copyright policy prevents the latter. Also, people have a right not to have someone change the meaning of what they said.

Whoops! Did you say, "a right?" Let's try to keep in mind that Wiki is a wide open forum. Forgive me, but this is the third time today I've drawn a reference to PerpetualNow. We - that is, the Wikizens - create this thing completely on the fly. Wiki is a community bulletin board writ large. Wiki is a sand beach with scribbling on it. One of the problems associated with writing on a sand beach is that everything is exposed to the public. (If that is a problem.) Another little problem is that people are running up and down the sand beach as we try to write. Things are going to get refactored. Sometimes they get WikiMindWiped. At any time they can be snarfed by a passerby and no one will be the wiser. Oh, well. -- MartySchrader

Yes, people have a right not to be misquoted. I don't care what new abilities wikis afford. People have been publishing misquotes, sometimes maliciously, in newspapers for much longer than the five years Wiki has been around. Consequently, there is much law and ethics around in defense of those thus slighted. Let me demonstrate:

I believe that Martians run the egg industry. -- MartySchrader

Or even more apropos:

At any time people's words can be snarfed by a passerby and no one will be the wiser. That sucks. -- MartySchrader

-- SunirShah (P.S. Did I write that italicized text?)

How did you know that I believe Martians run the egg industry?!? The point I was trying to make is that there is no mechanism available (short of a PGP or something, I guess, and who wants to go wading through piles of that drivel?) to ensure that your Berne rights are protected on a medium like Wiki. That is not the purpose of Wiki, anyway. Wikizens gather to share, not just to take.

The other aspect of this is that the body of contribution provided by regular Wikizens will itself form a protective barrier against the kind of intentional misquote you refer to. If I were smart enough to contribute regularly (which I'm not, so I don't) and other Wikizens had some appreciation of my writing, then my words - and their imagery - would remain. If somebody came along and tried to pervert that then the flavor of the writing would be in jarring contrast to what I had written before. The sharp-eyed Wiki regular can spot that a mile away. -- The Real MartySchrader, honest!

This seems to have gone from a CopyRight perspective to an AuthenticatedAuthorship one (e.g. see AuthenticationByWebsite -- fp). WikiWiki seems to thrive on anyone modifying anything so I do not think there can be any verification without contacting the PresumedAuthor?, I can see where it would be useful to have a (AuthenticationByPgp? -- fp) PGP signing mechanism operating transparently giving secure pages, or at least pages that can be seen as really written by someone or some group (perhaps showing up as highlighted in a yellow background, any modification leading to being marked as non verified (red background) or as unsigned (plain background as now). -- AndrewMcMeikan

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you may do something. I can take a knife and kill my roommates, but I don't because that would be bad. It is bad to misconstrue what someone said, so don't do it. Please! But since this is page about legal issues, legally speaking you may not do it either. The copyright policy similarly prevents you from doing it anyway. -- SunirShah

Legal is just a written attempt at defining a moral consensus; sometimes, that consensus is not universal. What happens when someone creates a textual work of art but it is just not in a relevant place? It gets moved; maybe the context changes as well. Some recognition needs to be shown that wiki is a constantly changing medium and is not writings fixed in a medium as with most items of CopyRight but ongoing derivative works, more like Chinese whispers. If copyright is intended, it should be saved and stored in a more fixed format (eg. on a personal WebSite). Some of what I have typed in on wiki pages I have felt an attachment to, even upset when things are turned opposite to my intentions. I might feel morally wronged, but short of expressing that, it's just my tough luck. All that can be done is to try one's best to respect others comments, or else there is no community and all that is left is individuals scared of misquoting or unable to work together. About the only CopyRight I can see being upheld in court is the entire site (or at least a significant portion) as a collective work - this would mean the rights apply only to the collection, not any individuals. IMHO, IANAL, YMMV -- AndrewMcMeikan

Law is a set of rules enforced by the power to kill/exile. It's nice when laws are moral, but that's not always the case. Also, it's nice when the morality behind the law agrees with your own sense of morality, but that isn't always the case.

Really, the copyright issue is moot. I have yet to really see any copyright conflicts on a wiki short of some papers doubly published on here and elsewhere. But let's discuss it from both a legal and moral perspective anyway.

Morally, it is just plain wrong to change the meaning and intent of what someone says. I'm not sure if you really disagree; do you really think it's ok for me to stuff words in your mouth? That's been done before on this wiki to great ill.

Legally, it is just plain illegal to do that. I have seen many newspapers threatened with many more lawsuits after editors exercised their quill. As an editor, you are not allowed to change intent. Really, that means you shouldn't change intent so much so that the author will come in and yell at you. I've been yelled at enough in my lifetime to have learnt this lesson.

On a practical note, it is remarkably difficult to get people to agree to write anything on a wiki if they are forced to sign their rights away to it. This was on of the points of contention between myself and others on the MeatballWiki copyright discussion. Ultimately, I changed my mind and agreed. Really, it's not fair for me take control over someone else's thoughts. After all, that's not how communities work in general: people are free to contribute to the whole without losing their individuality.

I'm not entirely sure I understand what this has to do with limiting the operation of a wiki. Technical edits are permitted as well as the ability to delete your comment and write DocumentMode summarizing it and other points of view. It has everything to do with codifying once again that it is not all right to abuse the medium to lie, cheat, politick and otherwise screw people over. -- SunirShah

I agree with you Sunir, I was merely trying to point out that change in context or even stuffing words into mouths can happen with the best of intentions. I still think that Judge Judy would have a fit over trying to determine a case based on wiki. -- AndrewMcMeikan

I wholeheartedly agree with that. By the way, note that the repository will not confirm authorship. MeatballWiki also refuses to confirm authorship. So, really, the copyright thing just vaporizes right there.

So, are you going to reduce this whole (excellent!) conversation to its bare essence? I would, but I just did some heavy refactoring on MeatballWiki and I'm tired. -- SunirShah

You might be shocked at what a lawyer (ie, a court) can get one to do for a deposition, including handing over one's hard drives for log searches by a court master (it think that's the term). I've seen reports of at least a couple of copyright cases in which such outrages occurred. But we all live with risks and we hope that Wiki owners will continue to do so. I read on another page that it was fine to correct someone's signed entry, say for a carelessly omitted "not", but now I read above that it is against the law!

It might be smart and generally helpful to put "Everyone must read the WikiWikiLegalNotice?." statement on every (boo, hiss) page and try to claim that everyone has fair notice that their works here are in the public domain or belong totally to the Wiki owner or whatever the Wiki owner wants. It should be read-only and reference a discussion page on the topic of wiki copyright, authentication, etc. It could also reference a "for beginners" page (which probably exists already but I haven't determined which page I think best serves that purpose), which I think would be good. I know that others prefer beginners learn the hard way.

On the general subject, I would prefer that every "save" button be an "I agree with the Wiki EULA which says I'm releasing this to the public domain" button, but otherwise I don't much care because if I do care about the copyright on any of my writing, it won't be contributed to a forum anything like this one. And if my contributions become the property of someone else, I'll just limit my contributions to what I consider a fair trade for the benefit I get from the site or consider it a gift which might benefit others too, depending on my trust of and feelings about all concerned. -- DeanElvy 14'jan'1985

Ah. As long as you are talking about contributions and property, you might want to take a look at the discussion on PerpetualNow and WikiNow. Or not.

the repository will not confirm authorship ok by me. Establish authorship elsewhere (perhaps burn a CD and put it in your safety deposit box with a receipt from the bank). Then if you wish to share, do so.


Hi! I wanted to alert you to an alternative, a new and simple license: PrimarilyPublicDomain.

-- Andrius Kulikauskas, Minciu Sodas, http://www.ms.lt


Is it right to copy material from another EgolessWiki?

It is not legal to copy other authors' original material without permission, unless it is a case of FairUse. (Whether it is right is another matter.) Why copy from another wiki when you could just link to it?

One reason for wanting to copy is to embed useful material from another source into the page being discussed. Often there is multiple and unknown authorship of the material being referenced, and it is thus not possible to give credit to the person(s) being quoted. Also the wiki material can change without notice, a link is not practical too.

Another reason is frequently the linked page has lots of material that is not related to the current page, the use of a link can cause distraction and confusion to the reader.

This is where TransClusion is needed.

I'd like to point out that under Canadian and U.S. law (and probably that of most signatories of the Berne Convention), public domain and holding copyright are mutually exclusive. By definition, Public Domain means that no one holds a copyright on public domain material. That's why the GPL was created in the first place. It allows content to be FreeAsInSpeech without losing the copyright (it also states that derivatives must also give this right).


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