Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Per-Book Licensing

Two books were found (or "rediscovered") today that have large prominent notices on them that they have been released into the public domain, not under the GFDL. The books have notices on them that "all future contributions to this book must also be released into the public domain". Checking the history, all the edit contributions to these books were from authors who have explicitly stated that all their contributions are released into the public domain, or anonymous authors (who have no legitimate claim to copyright anyway). So what's the verdict? Can a single book on Wikibooks be released into the public domain? Can we tell contributors that they must agree to certain alternate licensing schemes on a per-book basis? And what if a person edits a book or page without seeing that warning first?

This also brings up the topic of cross-licensing. Some books in the past have attempted to cross-license themselves under both GFDL and CC-BY-SA-2.5 (or similar). So long as all text is released under the GFDL, and so long as all authors agree to the cross-licensing scheme, is this acceptable? This is the kind of issue that we have never really come to grips with in the history of the Wikibooks project, and maybe it's something we should be dealing with now.


  1. 'The books have notices on them that "all future contributions to this book must also be released into the public domain".'

    Well, that's obviously not enforceable. If it's a legal license, then it's not public domain, and if it's not a legal license, it's no more than a misleading request.

    "or anonymous authors (who have no legitimate claim to copyright anyway)."

    How do you figure that? If their contribution is significant, they own the copyright on it, just as with pseudonymous editors or named editors or whoever, unless they specifically disclaim ownership (public domain) or it's someone else's material or whatever.

    "So long as all text is released under the GFDL, and so long as all authors agree to the cross-licensing scheme, is this acceptable?"

    En has never really had problems with cross-licensing your stuff. There are many many editors cross-licensing/not-licensing-into-the-public-domain. Nobody's complained yet...

  2. The point about the anonymous contributors is that many of them come from proxies, or shared IPs, or dynamic IPs, and so it would be difficult if not completely impossible to trace any IP contributions back to a single person. With a properly secured username, we can show that only the one person who has the password could possibly have made the edit.

  3. The first anonymous commentator is completely correct. There's no way something can both be put into the public domain and require all modifications to be in the public domain. Furthermore, if I had to make a guess I'd suggest that since the GFDL is very close to this (anyone can modify it but that property is inherited) I'd suggest that the authors who did this just didn't understand how Wikibooks operates and wanted something like the GFDL. So there shouldn't be any issue with simply declaring them to be GFDL.

  4. That's pretty much what I think about it. Even if all previous contributions to the book have been released into the public domain, all it would take is one GFDL edit to make the entire aggregate work a GFDL work. In essence, it's no different from using a small amount of PD material in a GFDL text, except we are changing the proportions of each. Also you do need to take into account that the contributors didn't understand copyright (and therefore didn't realize that this is nonsensical).

  5. These comments are correct. Legally, something in the public domain cannot have stipulations such as these put on them.

    On the other hand, a Wikibook licensed under GFDL cannot be released under public domain, because the GFDL license includes stipulations that prevent this.

  6. Isn't it fairly common for people to take something that was in the public domain, modify them, and then publish under their own licenses? If this is true, I think that (though I'm not even close to a lawyer so correct me if I'm wrong) if someone else edits text substantially that's under the PD they can legally relicense it however they want, including under the GFDL... and I think it's impossible at the very least to require modifications of PD work to be under PD, after all that's why copyleft licenses exist in the first place.

  7. Exactly! PD, by definition, cannot have any restrictions placed on it by the author. Also, since there are no restrictions, a PD document can be modified and that modified version can be released under a different license. That's what we've done with these books already.

  8. Who really cares? Wikipedia and Wikibooks people are really paranoid about copyright and other stuff. If nobody has complained then just go on as normal. Nobody gives a shit about a few uncopyrighted pictures.

  9. The fact is that people really need to care, whether you think so or not. Copyright is a big deal, and the last thing we need is a lawsuit over some stupid licensing ambiguity. If nobody has complained yet (and I know from some correspondance with OTRS volunteers that people have complained) it's a testament to the dedication of our volunteers to fight copyvios and to preserve our copyright policy.

    There have been several lawsuits recently about various copyleft licenses, such as GFDL and CC-BY. Thankfully, none of these have been leveled against the WMF or any of the projects. If anything, this trend shows that users of these copyleft licenses can be open to lawsuits if the licenses are not used and followed properly.