Open Content's Great Healing

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There is an irony at the heart of the open content world: that the two biggest successes there – Wikipedia and the Creative Commons movement – cannot share content.

This is because Wikipedia was created before CC came on the scene, and therefore – quite reasonably – used the best existing open content licence, the GNU Free Documentation Licence (FDL), which is not compatible with popular CC licences. As the man who did more than anyone to craft the latter, Larry Lessig, explains:

A fundamental flaw in the Free Culture Movement to date is that its most important element -- Wikipedia -- is licensed in a way that makes it incompatible with an enormous range of other content in the Free Culture Movement. One solution to this, of course, would be for everything to move to the FDL.

But that license was crafted initially for manuals, and there were a number of technical reasons why it would not work well (and in some cases, at all) for certain important kinds of culture.

This bringing together of the two strands is being achieved in an interesting way.

The FSF is currently working on version 2 of the main GNU FDL, but to address the immediate needs of Wikipedia (and similar collaborative content projects) it has released version 1.3, which contains the following clause:

11. RELICENSING
"Massive Multiauthor Collaboration Site" (or "MMC Site") means any World Wide Web server that publishes copyrightable works and also provides prominent facilities for anybody to edit those works. A public wiki that anybody can edit is an example of such a server. A "Massive Multiauthor Collaboration" (or "MMC") contained in the site means any set of copyrightable works thus published on the MMC site.

"CC-BY-SA" means the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license published by Creative Commons Corporation, a not-for-profit corporation with a principal place of business in San Francisco, California, as well as future copyleft versions of that license published by that same organization.

"Incorporate" means to publish or republish a Document, in whole or in part, as part of another Document.

An MMC is "eligible for relicensing" if it is licensed under this License, and if all works that were first published under this License somewhere other than this MMC, and subsequently incorporated in whole or in part into the MMC, (1) had no cover texts or invariant sections, and (2) were thus incorporated prior to November 1, 2008.

The operator of an MMC Site may republish an MMC contained in the site under CC-BY-SA on the same site at any time before August 1, 2009, provided the MMC is eligible for relicensing.

A FAQ explains why the two dates are there:

Q. What is the purpose of the two different dates in section 11? Why did you choose those specific dates?

A. Section 11 imposes two deadlines on licensees. First, you can only use works under CC-BY-SA 3.0 if they were added to a wiki before November 1, 2008. We do not want to grant people this permission for any and all works released under the FDL. We also do not want people gaming the system by adding FDLed materials to a wiki, and then using them under CC-BY-SA afterwards. Choosing a deadline that has already passed unambiguously prevents this.

Second, this permission is no longer available after August 1, 2009. We don't want this to become a general permission to switch between licenses: the community will be much better off if each wiki makes its own decision about which license it would rather use, and sticks with that. This deadline ensures that outcome, while still offering all wiki maintainers ample time to make their decision.

From this it's clear that the current change is intended to be something of a one-off, not a general permission to leach FDL content into the CC domain. That means that there remains something of a divide in the open content, although not such a noticeable one. Nonetheless, as Lessig notes:

Richard Stallman deserves enormous credit for enabling this change to occur. There were some who said RMS would never permit Wikipedia to be relicensed, as it is one of the crown jewels in his movement for freedom. And so it is: like the GNU/Linux operation system, which his movement made possible, Wikipedia was made possible by the architecture of freedom the FDL enabled. One could well understand a lesser man finding any number of excuses for blocking the change.

Indeed. And this latest move also gives the lie to the common perception of Stallman as someone who never accommodates the needs of others. When logic suggests that it is for the greater good, Stallman is quite able to shift; the only thing that is not open to discussion is his fundamental commitment to freedom.

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