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The source of material on a wiki can come from anywhere, as the authorship is unregulated. Anyone can write anything, and sometimes there is an urge to copy material into the wiki that rightfully belongs to someone else. Some wikis, most notably WikiPedia, are paranoid about copyright infringement. Some say they go overboard, removing quotes even made in FairUse. Others say paranoia is legitimate if the WikiPedia ever becomes a published, canonical text.

cf. MetaWikiPedia:Avoid_Copyright_Paranoia

While WikiPedia's larger purposes may demand this level of attention, for most of us it remains important to DefendAgainstParanoia. Although scary LegalThreats are just that: meant to scare you; and although useless people often threaten legal action even if they intend nothing because they are losers; people will not generally do much more than ask you to stop. Unless you receive a lawyer's letter, don't panic.

Don't even panic then. All a lawyer's letter means is that someone could pay a lawyer $250 or so to write it. It doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong: only the courts can decide that.

Not panicking also means not rushing to slap everything with a convoluted copyright license. Spending a lot of time thinking about or worrying about copyright licenses is paranoid. While it is true that copyright law demands such attention to detail, you can probably safely assume that your friends won't sue you for modifying a fifty line Perl script to process the Apache access.log file.

On MeatballWiki, the policy is simply to erase the all the contributions of anyone who complains formally. It's also partially a benefit that we maintain a dubious legal idea over where exactly the copyright is. This is probably too paranoid. In reality, it's highly unlikely that we'd receive ink instead of a polite request. The policy here is more of a thought experiment than anything else.

For other places on the Internet, a similar nonchalant stance will probably do well. However, it's not unknown for big brands to beat up on the little guy. For instance, SunirShah was taken to task by the Subway fast food franchiser Doctor's Associates, Inc. when he was 17 for misusing their logo in a parody.

You misrepresented the case. I won that round against Subway. Doctor's Associates was threatening to sue me under the Food and Drug Administration Act for listing false ingredients. I live in Canada, and the page was hosted in Canada. Case closed. I lost against my Internet Service Provider in a sense, but only because my friends thought that a joke wasn't worth the effort. Not to mention the fact that involving the personal details of my life contributes little to the discussion.

Paranoia may be bad, but vigilance is still required, and sometimes backbone.


License obsession

I always wonder why people bother asking me whether or not they can take the scripts that I publically post here. I mean, I'm not going to sue over WantedPages, but I don't feel it's worth the effort to make them all BSD or something. Copyright law is a very heavy club to employ, akin to HardSecurity, except it uses a LegalSolution instead of a TechnologySolution. -- SunirShah

You know the answer to that one! The same reason that you were afraid of people moving content from WikiWiki to here, and why you noted on "WhatIsReworking" that the content is yours.

Also, it is not sufficient to assume that you won't sue. We must be afraid that the future owners of the work may sue. In the U.S. at least, copyrights last for 70 years after the author's death, and I've heard the number is 50 years for Canada. So there's plenty of time for your estate to be bandied about and reach someone who may care to sue even if we had absolute trust that they would stay with you during your life. If you're not going to spend the effort to release the works now, we can assume that you won't bother to write a release into your will, either.

If you don't want to spend the effort to append a BSD clause to each file, you could just post a statement on sunir.org saying that they are all under the (revised) BSD license. I think that may provide enough protection against your estate.

I don't feel these sorts of considerations are at all paranoid. People run into copyright trouble all the time because they weren't paranoid enough earlier on. For example, supposedly the collaborative site MathWorld was accidentally sold by its editor (he claims he thought he was just selling the rights to print a book about it, not the rights to the work itself). The new owners eventually sued (because he kept the site up on the web) and the site was taken down, although they eventually allowed it to be put back up.

But people still want a math encyclopaedia with content that can be reused in other places (and one which is guaranteed to remain online). So, just because no one had bothered to put the earlier collaborative site under an OpenContent license, we had to start all over again with PlanetMath. -- BayleShanks

I don't remember the specific case about WikiWiki. If it was about their Wiki:WikiOnWiki ForestFire, it was not because of copyright, even if I might have said so. I just didn't want their flame war coming here.

On the other hand, if it was just some innocuous content, you should know that I'm an ardent believer in the ethics of copyright. I don't think it's a fair to move people's words from a space where they have a reasonable expectation where it would remain. I think it would reduce people's desire to contribute if they couldn't trust the community to treat their work with respect.

Finally, your example of MathWorld is a straw man. Not only did MathWorld sign a contract, but it had a significant amount of money riding on the contract. I doubt that anything on MeatballWiki constitutes material liability.

I doubt anyone would seriously go through the expense of suing the site just because you copied their blog entry, but I would still stop you from doing this because it wouldn't be fair. -- SunirShah

OK, so maybe your protection of copyright is out of ethics rather than legal paranoia.

But as for the other part of my comment, that you can never tell in whose hands a copyright will eventually end up, I don't really see what you mean. I wasn't arguing that MeatBall would be liable for something, but rather I was arguing that if I copied one of your "obviously public" scripts into something else w/o explicit permission, then whatever my creation evolved into would be liable to suits by your estate.

I don't see how MathWorld is a straw man here. MathWorld is an example of people getting in trouble because they didn't worry enough about the technicalities of copyright law. -- BayleShanks

Eric Weisstein signed a contract to publish MathWorld as a book for thousands of dollars; the publisher expected to make revenue of tens of thousands of dollars after an investment of tens of thousands of dollars. The motivation to prevent loss to revenue is clear. You are comparing that to some lame Perl script that I wrote to demonstrate a simple algorithm. That sounds like straw man to me. Although clearly the Perl script isn't worth a penny, comparing it to the book publishing industry for which copyright law was invented makes it sound a lot more important than it is. -- SunirShah

I always wonder why people bother asking me whether or not they can take the scripts that I publically post here

I think the word you're looking for is "politeness". When using someone's work, it's polite to let them know about it. Isn't this to do with the "ethics" you're promoting, Sunir? Also, arguments about "avoid copyright paranoia" are unlikely to wash with the companies that most people have to work for... MartinHarper

That makes a lot of sense. Thank you, Martin. -- SunirShah

Pleasure. :)

There's a difference between programs and content here. In programs, if 0.1% of the program violates copyright, then you likely have 0% of a working program. In content, if 0.1% of the content violates copyright, then you still have 99.9% of the content unaffected. That's why copyright paranoia is appropriate for programs, but inappropriate for content.

Sunir, you don't seem to be *getting* the MathWorld example. MathWorld itself didn't sign any contract--a single individual prominent in the collaborative effort signed the contract. This hijacked the aggregate collaborative editorial effort of others who both a) contributed to MathWorld or b) who raised its reputation through their own attention to it.

As for whether you would sue or not--what if you were yourself sued, and someone came into certain rights to the things you had written in the course of a judgement against you? These kinds of things do [happen]. Yes, it is unlikely. But then again, who would have predicted [SCO going after IBM] like they are? --anon.

At the time of the lawsuit, MathWorld was the product of one person, Eric Weisstein. It was not a collaborative effort. That remains true today at the time I am writing this. Any copyright to contributions submitted to Eric must be waived with respect to MathWorld.

SCO going after IBM is not a precedent for John going after Mary. -- SunirShah

Eric disagrees with that assessment.

"Eric's Treasure Trove of Mathematics," the predecessor site to MathWorld, first went online in 1995 when I was a graduate student in planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. As the site became more widely known and used, dozens of contributors offered new entries. [1]

I could be wrong, but it seems unlikely that the Treasure Trove required people to sign over their copyright. It was probably just a bunch of people sending stuff to Eric, saying, "Here, you can use this on your site." This has been a consistant pattern with many early collaborative efforts:

  1. Founded by one person with good intentions
  2. A contributing community forms
  3. No one worries about copyright because we're all friends here, trying to do something good
  4. Resource becomes something people like
  5. Some company buys limited or complete rights to the site, leaving the founder in charge and promising to keep things the way they are
  6. Pressure begins to build as the corporation looks for ways to make money off the site (usually via changes in copyright and/or usage policy)
  7. Eventually, the original spirit of the site is destroyed, although the content may or may not remain available for individual, non-competative use.

CDDB/Gracenote is one of the more extreme examples.

There are various ways to defend against this, depending on what the CommunityGoals? are. A well-thought out copyright policy, such as MeatballWikiCopyright, is one. A CopyLeft license is another. It is important to recognize that communities that AssumeGoodFaith when dealing corporations have consistantly been burned. -- StephenGilbert

The MeatballWikiCopyright sought to say nothing outside the range of the Berne conventions. It may have failed to do that, but if you notice, it holds pretty closely to what would be expected under current copyright law in most globalized jurisdictions. If existing copyright law then is sufficient, then that was all that was required. If Eric hadn't acquired the rights to the contributions, he couldn't have republished them legally. I'm sure his counsel would have asked that question early on, as well as the publisher. Frankly, I don't think Eric is a particularly credible source on copyright, as evidenced by the mess that he got into. I wouldn't trust anything he said as making any legal sense.

In the situation skeleton you wrote, the contributors can sue the living daylights out of the publisher. If they don't think their contributions were valuable enough to do that, then it's hard to claim that they were burnt by the process. Or if they were compiling a directory of publically available information, such as CDDB, they probably don't even have a copyright.

AssumeGoodFaith doesn't work with corporations, as corporations don't have human nature. When dealing with employees individually, that's another story, but if you make a deal with the corporation you should expect to have to deal with the pressure of the due diligence. Corporations instrinsically (i.e. legally) are required to increase shareholder value, whereas humans have the option of acting altruistically amongst other variations. -- SunirShah

In the situation skeleton you wrote, the contributors can sue the living daylights out of the publisher. If they don't think their contributions were valuable enough to do that, then it's hard to claim that they were burnt by the process.

If party A can't afford to sue party B, that doesn't mean that party B is in the right or that whatever wrong they did was inconsequential.

For example, in the above example, if party A gave something worth $50 to party B as an altruistic act, and that something was stolen by party C, it doesn't follow that party A has another $20000 to devote to litigating party C.

-- BayleShanks

I agree, making effective copyright claims in court are not practical in this case, IMO, c.f. CopyrightDoesntMatter. IANAL. -Steve

So, I want to pipe in and say here that developers of OpenContent have a special responsibility to be copyright paranoid. We don't make work just to go on our own Web site, which can be removed based on a takedown order from Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe. We make work that reproduces, and reproduces, and spreads out into the world, into unknown corners and various far-flung places. Our copyright problems become the copyright problems of everyone downstream, and everyone downstream of them, and so on, and so on.

OpenContent is built to be propagated. We wouldn't bother Open'ing it if that wasn't the case. Being cavalier about copyright, when you're a content creator, is irresponsible and self-defeating. It doesn't take more than one copyright challenge -- however frivolous -- to chill the waters for your output.

Need I invoke SCOvsIBM?? Regardless of the merits of the case, it's indisputable that the lawsuit has caused fear, uncertainty, and doubt inside and outside the Linux community. Think of all the hundreds of thousands of people who've put in years of effort contributing to Linux as a kernel and as a platform. Their work has been harmed -- not terribly, but somewhat -- by this case. And all because someone (allegedly, unprovenly, as stated) wasn't paranoid about copyright.

As another case, take WikiPedia. Who here would create a paper WikiPedia encyclopedia and try to sell it? Or copies of Wikipedia on a CD-ROM? Wouldn't that be wonderfully useful? But would you try to do it? I wouldn't. "Avoid Copyright Paranoia" has encouraged a laxity of attention about copyright in Wikipedia, and there's innumerable instances of images and media incorporated into the site right now under a muddle-headed idea of FairUse. There's no way I'd take on the liability. I know the stuff is copyright-dirty. Why bother?

My opinion is that no matter how copyright paranoid you are, you're not being paranoid enough. I say, if there's the possibility that someone could think that something's a copyright violation, skip it. If in doubt, leave it out. There's no single sentence, image, paragraph, or source that's worth the taint.

And, you know, after all: isn't the fun of things doing the actual creation? What kind of joy is there in copy-and-pasting something from somewhere else? What pleasure of accomplishment? What pride? What else do we get out of creating these online communities but those things? Why sacrifice them to -- shiver -- FormOverContent? --EvanProdromou

Sometimes I'm pretty certain people wrote text they are happy for me to move offsite - the summaries on the PeriPeri page being the case in point - and it's not worth the hassle of contacting them; instead, I make it obvious I copied it and do so, happy to remove it later should they object. --ChrisPurcell


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