Wikipedia case study

wikipedia global Wikipedia is a vast and ever-growing resource. It has over 3.5 million (July 2011) articles in English and there over 250 different language versions. It calls itself 'the free encyclopedia'' - meaning no payment is required, but more importantly that the information and resources - the "content" - are freely availbale for use and re-use by other people. It is also free for people to contribute new information and resources to. How does it cope with copyright?

Wikipedia does NOT take an ‘anything goes’ stance on copyright. On the contrary it works with partners to develop a flow of resources that are open for use without infringing copyrights by:

‘Wikipedia’ uses Creative Commons as its standard licensing for images and text but you will often come across references to GNU licences and more occasionally licences from other countries; in other words a licence that keeps re-use open as much as possible - including for commercial use - while providing acknowledgement for the creator - or in other words "some rights reserved". Wikipedia classes 'free content' as content that does not "bear copyright restrictions on the right to redistribute, study, modify and improve, or otherwise use works for any purpose in any medium, even commercially," so it uses Creative Commons BY-SA (by, sharealike) or BY

As part of its ‘wiki’ approach to knowledge - continuous development and critical amendment - ‘Wikipedia’ provides a lot of information about the provenance and copyright of the photographs and artwork that are used in its pages. Click on an image and you see the large size image and underneath it what the copyright status is. At first sight the amount of information seems overwhelming, but it is presented within a consistent format so after reading a few of them it becomes easier to scan for the particular information you want. However, it needs to be kept in mind that the person who uploaded the image has a responsibility to 'do it right' and should have had the right or permission to do so in the first place. Wikipedia moderates materials and is rigourous in removing copyright infringing materials.

‘Wikipedia' is based in the USA and works to USA regulations as the rationale for publishing many of its materials. The law is not exactly the same in all countries with respect to copyright so Wikipedia provides this sound advice "Please be aware that depending on local laws, re-use of this content may be prohibited or restricted in your jurisdiction (country).” In USA "Fair Use" is a set of exemptions to permit a degree of creative use of in-copyright materials and is often used by wikipedia as the rationale for publishing digital images. "USA "Fair Use" is not the same as "Fair Dealing" in the UK and the two are not interchangeable.  However global the internet is, schools in the UK still work to UK law.

‘Wikipedia’ often highlights the due care that users should take with statements such as: “If you decide to reuse files from Wikimedia Commons, you should make your own determination of the copyright status of each image just as you would when obtaining images from other sources.”

There are also some 'grey areas'. For instance, the status of digital images of older items in museums and galleries - especially digital images of 'flat' items such as paintings - which are in the public domain.  This debate revolves around a USA legal case - 'Bridgeman vs Corel' which held that a digital image (copy) of a flat object like a painting couldn't be 'copyrighted' as there was no creative act involved in the copying. However, not all museums and galleries in other countries, including the UK, take this view, and of course many provide digital images of good qaulity for education use; there's no generally agreed rule - you have to check each source.

PublicDomain symbolWikipedia uses a huge amount of material that is in the 'public domain'. Materials are in the 'public domain' either because they have been available or published for a long period of time (the "duration") - in the UK this is typically 70 years - or because the creator has put them into the public domain - for instance the USA government puts a huge amount of material, including images from NASA and Llibrary of Congress, into the public domain every year. However many paintings and other materials  - created within the past 70 years - and to children 20 years let alone 70 looks very old - are still in copyright. This is a 'no copyright' or 'public domain symbol.

Rembrandt self-portrait - You can see how this works out by searching the pages on Wikipedia for, say, Rembrandt (old stuff - lots of illustrations of paintings in museums in America and Europe) and Andy Warhol (new stuff - only one example - even though he re-used copyright images such as 'Campbell's' soup tin labels and other peoples' photographs to make his art! Warhol's works are controlled by his 'estate' and licenced through the USA organisation ARS (Artists' Rights Society) which in turn works with Licencing organisations in other countries - in the UK this is DACs (Design and Art Society) - to make them available.  The digital image of the self-portrait by Rembrandt painted in 1655 comes from a partnership project with a German publisher making 10,000 images of paintings, originally copyrighted under a GNU lincence, available to the Wikimedia Commons under the name of the Yorck Project.   The image on the right is made up of Rembrandt's self-portrait of 1655 now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum and made availble as a public domain digital image by Wikipedia. 'Copyrights and Wrongs' has added the graphic to represent the largely unillustrated Warhol page. The combined image we've left in the PD.

Wikimedia Commons logo'Wikimedia Commons' is an open bank of materials developed through Wikipedia and related projects; it is growing very quickly and offers schools a valuable resource of re-usable materials. In Wikipedia-speak, 'Wikimedia Commons' is"a media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content (images, sound and video clips) to everyone."

At first sight it may seem curious for a free resource, but like other Wikipedia logos the Wikimedia logo is 'copyright' © and a 'trade mark' and has 'all rights reserved'. 'Copy Rights and Wrongs' had to request permisson for it and the Wikipedia globe/jigsaw symbol. Wikimedia granted a license for them to appear in this 'Copy Rights and Wrongs' article.

Reusing 'Wikipedia' materials:

Copyright Watch Out symbolThere may be times, especially if you are creating resources for publication or for permanent availability through a VLE where saying ""But it was on Wikipedia" may not be enough and you may have to go the source where the images originated from, check it out there and perhaps request permission. If that takes you to a 'dead end' or is too lengthy a process you may have to opt for an alternative.  

For the teacher and pupil Wikipedia provides a model of good practice and even a model for learning:


"You shouldn't really use Wikipedia as the sole source for anything ever. You shouldn't use anything as the sole source for anything, in my view."
Jimmy Wales founder of Wikipedia; Guardian, 19th February 2011. Image Wikimedia Commons, Photo Philipp Bachmann,  originally GNU Free Document Licence and now Creative Commons BY-SA.



back to top