Is Wikimedia an American monopoly?

Posted by Strainu on July 01, 2015

In the last few days there was quite of a storm in the free-content world raised by an amendment introduced by the French MEP Jean-Marie Cavada in the InfoSoc evaluation report made by Julia Reda. The amendment (one of more than 500 proposed in the commission that discussed the report) basically forbids Freedom of Panorama (FoP) in Europe, by allowing only non-commercial uses of reproductions of copyrighted works in public places.

The longer story: In 2001, the European Council and Parliament adopted directive 2001/29/EC “on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society”, short the InfoSoc directive. In late 2014, the Internal Affairs Committee appointed Julia Reda to create a report on the implementation of this directive and to offer advice on how should the European Commission tackle a new copyright directive. So far, the report was presented to the Committee and it received over 500 amendments; the Committee voted on them on June 16th and some (including Mr. Cavada’s amendment on FoP) were adopted. The next step is for the Parliament to vote on the report in early July.  Then, in late 2015 or early 2016, the Commission will begin drafting the new directive which will pass through the European Council and Parliament.

In a long blog post, Mr. Cavada justifies his amendment. The gist of the post is this:

Le combat […] est […] mené avant tout pour permettre aux monopoles américains tels que Facebook ou encore Wikimédia, d’échapper au versement des droits aux créateurs.

Here is my translation in English:

This war is waged in order to allow American monopolies such as Facebook or Wikimedia to skip paying royalties to creators.

I thought a short FAQ from a Wikipedian specifically regarding this blog post would be useful. The questions are the ones I see asked around me, on Facebook or blogs and the answers are exclusively my own opinion. This post assumes you know a bit about copyright and Freedom of Panorama. You can find more generic information written by Wikimedians on this page.

General questions

Q1: What is the difference between Wikimedia and Wikipedia?
A1: See here.

Q2: Is Wikimedia a monopoly? How about Wikipedia?
A2: Wikimedia is most definitely not a monopoly. Beyond Wikipedia, the movement expanded in many different areas, such as Public Domain original works (Wikisource), tourism guides (Wikivoyage), community journalism (Wikinews) etc. In mst of these fields the Wikimedia websites are not even close to being leaders, let alone a monopoly.

Wikipedia on the other hand is a different story. Thanks in no small part to Google’s rating algorithms, Wikipedia has become the dominant player in the area of general information on a subject. While this is still far from a monopoly (other websites do exist and they do get traffic), one can understand how this dominant position might bother some players.

Q3: Is Wikimedia an American monopoly?
A3: The simple answer is that, with the 250+ language versions, with volunteers from almost every country and with chapters (local NGOs) in almost 100 countries, Wikimedia cannot be considered “American” and Mr. Cavada is simply playing with terms in order to align Wikimedia with Facebook and other established content publishers.

However, this answer is far for complete. There are many frictions withing the Wikimedia community (this NY Times article is relevant) and many of those are about the fact that the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), that hosts Wikipedia and the other sites is based in the US (see this thread, for instance). My personal opinion is that this kind of argument will remain present no matter where the Foundation is hosted.

Also, the influence of chapters is not as high as some believe. In 2011, their ability to fundraise using the Wikimedia trademarks was severely limited (see the WMF’s executive directors recommendations at the time and the other pages linked from there), concentrating all the movement’s funds in the hands of a single entity and making the global chapters dependent on the decisions of a funding committee. Leaving aside the personal pride of the chapters and the fact that this limited the ways one could donate (no more phone donations, higher costs for wire transfers etc.), this is obviously bad news for the volunteers in countries that are under sanctions from the US (because money transfer to and from these countries are forbidden) for the WMF. Again, my opinion is that this is not a US-specific problem, but an internal issue of the WMF.

Q4: Is Wikimedia financed by monetizing content? Is it making a profit?
A4: Definitely not. Wikimedia is maintained by an NGO, curated by volunteers and financed from donations.

Q5: Mr. Cavada says Wikimedia requests high-quality images that can be used for commercial purposes, thus preventing the right-owners from collecting royalties. Is that right?
A5: I am not sure what he refers to, but it sounds like he talks about the GLAM partnerships (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). While there are many types of partnerships (wikipedian in residence, content donation, exhibit tagging etc.), they are all based on the free will of the partners and, more often that not, refer to works already in the Public Domain. The Cultural Entities that donate high-quality content to Wikipedia do so because they understand that spreading and reusing their content makes them known to the public and can attract future (paying) visitors. We also have to keep in mind that usually GLAMs do not own the copyright on the works they host; at most, they are entitled to the database creator’s rights.

For the “normal” users that make their own pictures and upload them to Wikipedia, there is no such request enforced. They can contribute as they see fit, as long as they respect other people’s copyrights.

Q6: Does Wikipedia hurt European copyright holders?
A6:  This is not about Wikipedia vs. the copyright holders, but about free content and balances. As I said in A4, the Wikimedia sites are maintained by a non-commercial entity, so they could in theory use Mr. Cavada’s proposal to keep using images of buildings under copyright.

However, at the very core of Wikipedia is the respect of the user’s freedoms (now you know what “free” stands for in “The free encyclopedia”), so we want to make sure reusers of Wikipedia content can do anything with our content, as long as attribution is offered. This means that some people that were simply monetizing the original works in question instead of building on them to offer added value to consumers will have something to lose.

On the other hand, the fact the Wikipedia content is free also means that European entities that are prepared to embrace the change can win from it. For instance, architects could use free images to build a portfolio instead of employing a professional photographer. Cultural entities can complement and improve their exhibits by using free content (see the examples in A5), bringing in more visitors and thus more revenue.

Finally, for the end-users the main benefit is not quantifiable in money, but it undoubtedly exists: the access to higher-quality, legal content.

In conclusion, we can say that while the usual way of earning money from copyright work is somehow affected by FoP, the overall benefits far outweigh this loss (the references cited here should convince you of that). Even copyright holders can adapt and compensate the losses by using free content to their advantage.

Q7: Can’t the Europeans create their own Wikipedia to compete with the “Americans”?
A7:  It’s not that simple. Starting from 0 would imply way too much financial and human effort. One could, of course, start by using Wikipedia’s content (since it is freely licensed). However, Wikipedia’s license (CC-BY-SA 3.0) is what’s called “strong copyleft“, meaning that any good changes in the new project could be integrated back into Wikipedia. In order for the new project to succeed, it would need to convince a critical mass of users to move from Wikipedia to the new project. Historically, this has proven tedious. Here are a few examples from Romania:

  • The project documenting wooden churches in Romania begun at the Romanian Wikipedia with 4 or 5 very active members, one of which was an architect with a PhD in the area. Because of infighting the project now has a single active member; he’s always saying that he hates the way Wikipedia works (including the license), but there is no other project that would offer his images the same exposure to the public as Wikipedia.
  • Another example is Enciclopedia României. It was started by wikimedians leaving the project in 2007 and was published under a non-commercial license, just like Mr. Cavada’s proposal would impose. The project now has only 5000 articles (compared to hundreds of thousands in the Romanian Wikipedia), mainly because the founders could not increase the contributor base – they simply did not have anything over Wikipedia.

The European Commission did in fact start a project meant to bring the European heritage in the spotlight: Europeana. While it was not designed to directly compete with Wikipedia, but with commercial initiatives like the Google Art Gallery, it is an interesting case study.

The project was aimed at reusers, not end-users and imposed a drastic license (CC-0, which is basically “no copyright”) for metadata and descriptions, but kept the original license for the images and texts published. This allowed content exchanges with Wikipedia: In 2012, Europeana integrated more than 12.000 free images of monuments in Romania from the Wiki Loves Monuments contest with help from the CIMEC. Since then, other countries have used Wikipedia content to enhance Europeana. The CC-0 Europeana descriptions were in turn used to generate articles in Wikipedia, just like it would happen to an European encyclopedia.

Q8: So what do you make of Jean Paul Cavada’s post overall?
A8: That’s a very difficult question. While it raises legitimate questions regarding the responsibility of publishers such as Facebook or Wikipedia, that have appeared time and again since the dawn of the Internet, the approach taken seems flawed. Not only Wikipedia is nothing like Facebook, forbidding all commercial use of copyrighted content in public places even in countries that currently allow it would most likely hit more the local, European, reusers than global Internet companies, which have the knowledge and the money to avoid these regulations.

It’s far more likely that his amendment will hit the souvenir shop next to you than Facebook or Wikimedia.

Q9: Aren’t you biased? Why should I trust you?
A9: You shouldn’t believe anyone blindly, but rather think for yourself. Check out (with a critical eye) the sources available on the Internet and try to answer the following questions for yourself:

  1. How much are the original creators (sculptors, architects etc.) earning in countries without FoP?
  2. Are the original creators the ones earning or losing that money or do they go to big businesses? Think of the image of the Eiffel Tower at night.
  3. How many court decisions have there been against big re-users in countries without FoP?
  4. How much are the re-users losing by not being able to use those monuments?
  5. How much are the final users losing both in terms of money (monopoly implies a premium) and non-financial value by not having access to the creative works that could appear if FoP existed?
  6. Considering all the answers above, is the FoP bringing value to society or not?

Questions about the situation in Romania

Q10: What’s the FoP status in Romania?
A10: Reproductions of copyrighted works in the public space can be used for non-commercial purposes. See this page for more details.

Q11: What’s the Romanian MEPs’ position on this?
A11: I have contacted all 32 MEPs and so far I have received 3 responses:

  • a Socialist representative assigned an assistant to look into the matter; he assured me that the objections regarding the ambiguity in “non-commercial usages” will be taken into account
  • an ALDE MEP assured me that she will look into the matter and will discuss it with her colleagues from the same European political family
  • finally, I have received another email from an assistant confirming the receipt of the email
  • Update: Another independent MEP has told me that “he values the freedom of speech, but also copyright and the right of each country to decide on the best way to protect this according to the local cultural landscape” and he will vote “according to all available data and the requests received from Romanian citizens”. So I guess he recieved more emails regarding the subject, which is a good thing.

What other questions do you have regarding Jean-Marie Cavada’s blogpost or the larger issue of FoP in the European legislation? Ask in a comment and I’ll do my best to provide an answer based on sources available on the Internet.

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