Wikipedia and attribution

The potential migration of Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects to using CC BY-SA as their primary content license has spurred some interesting discussions about attribution — how to give credit for a massively collaborative work in a variety of mediums? This question is relevant regardless of migration, but clearly migration has prompted the discussion and provides an opportunity to progress best practices.

Erik Möller has posted results of a survey run on the English and German Wikipedias regarding how contributors feel about what constitutes appropriate credit for using Wikipedia content. Raw survey data is available for independent analysis.

Unsurprisingly (at least in hindsight), attribution via linking to the article used was most popular, while not giving credit at all was least popular. Here’s the Condorcet ranking, provided by Robert Rohde:

1) Link to the article must be given.
2) Collective credit (e.g. Wikipedia community).
3) Link to the version history must be given.
4) For online use: link. For other uses: full list of authors.
5) Full list of authors must always be copied.
6) No credit is needed.

Creative Commons had wikis in mind when we added attribution via link in version 2.5 of our licenses in 2005. If there are further changes we can make to address attribution and massively collaborative works, it is surely something we’ll want to look at in a future version of the CC licenses, regardless of Wikipedia migration, as wiki and wiki-like mechanisms will only grow in importance for the creation of free cultural works — though it will be very helpful to have the brainpower and experience of the Wikipedia community guiding such developments.

Correction 2009-03-11: We added attribution by link in version 2.0. The change in 2.5 did have wikis in mind, but was more subtle — allowing the licensor to designate that attribution should go to an entity such as a journal or wiki. Thanks to Anthony for prompting this correction on the Wikimedia Foundation discussion list.

5 thoughts on “Wikipedia and attribution”

  1. There appears to be a lot of effort by the Wikipedia community aimed at crafting a full-featured attribution model that satisfies the egos of contributors, while simultaneously allowing easy re-use for the propagation of free knowledge. I’m not certain that all of this effort will work out the way that they intend.

    First, when people re-use Wikipedia content, they will use the easiest method of attribution. They will attribute it with a hyperlink, URL, or just “Wikipedia: {Article Name},” depending upon the media or format that the re-use resides in. Despite any suggestions, stipulations, or terms of use, the majority of re-users will feel that a link is adequate, so that is what they will do.

    When alcohol was prohibited in the United States, the only thing that it accomplished was to turn the majority of Americans into criminals. When internet file sharing became broadly feasible, it turned many otherwise law abiding individuals into copyright law breakers. If Wikipedia adopts complicated re-use attribution rules, it will most likely just turn re-users into rule breakers–and, to some degree, discourage re-use.

    Then main difference between the alcohol prohibition and internet piracy is that the U.S. government did not have the resources to adequately enforce prohibition, but the big media companies and their lobbyists and industry associations do have the resources to enforce their copyrights. Does the Wikimedia Foundation have the resources needed to go after all of the potential attribution rule breakers? Do they want to be the “bad guys” who launch thousands of lawsuits and risk a popular backlash? Is individual attribution to satisfy some egos really worth all of that?

    I don’t mean to suggest that we should sacrifice what is right for what is popular, or that anarchy should reign supreme. However, you do have to pick your battles on items that you have no real means of enforcing.

    To summarize:

    1. Wikipedia content re-users will use the easy attribution method of providing a link or something similar.
    2. If Wikipedia selects a more complex method of attribution, many re-users will ignore that method and just provide the link.
    3. WMF will have to devote a significant amount of resources to enforcing any attribution rule that is not as simple as providing a link.
    4. Any actions that WMF takes to enforce a more complex attribution rule will likely precipitate a popular backlash.
    5. Individual attribution for the sake of ego is just not worth this hassle and will likely inhibit the propagation of free knowledge.

    Of course, I could be wrong… 🙂

  2. I don’t really understand attribution as a copyright rule. I can understand Wikipedia having a policy of sourcing things, but I don’t see it as something that should be a condition of the license you use. “Attribution” as a “moral right” is a part of the French tradition, the less troubling one as compared with the “integrity” right, but still not exactly consistent with the American general emphasis of recognizing that published information is inherently free. I’ve indicated in the past to folks like RMS that it’s something I can live with, but I think people are un-clearsightedly moving forward into something that may have more implications than you expect. Share-alike without attribution, with a Wikimedia policy of sourcing things that’s independent of what’s presented as a condition of copyright, seems to me to reflect the unique nature of the American tradition (when we finally vanquish the ludicrous theories of the “maximalists”) of embodying the proper, full sense of the post-Enlightenment insight of published information means for society.

  3. This is part of the big problem. Morality has no place anywhere in terms of the law. The courts are only concerned about what’s written & legal. Copyright attribution was never about morals, it IS a right. Without proper attribution, know one would know who to go to for permission for commercial usage; in addition, a newscaster can not appropriately give correct news/information, if their is no attribution.

    Lastly, proper attribution is important because without it; you’ll see what many underhanded business are doing now with the public domain; which is plagiarism. Companies threaten lawsuits everyday, for works they do not rightfully own. so YES attribution is important.

    It’s not about morality, nor a author’s ego; it’s the law. Without proper attribution, creative commons should not have copyrighted material at all; this site would be a dumping ground for unwanted, or poor quality content.


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