Archive:Press releases/Dual license vote May 2009QA

From Wikimedia Foundation Governance Wiki

Wikimedia project license change Questions and Answers

May 2009

This is a modified document based on the more exhaustive Licensing update committee Q&A.

What was the nature of the proposal to shift from the GFDL License to this new dual license?
Unlike most content on the web, text published in Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects is not published under the normal copyright terms granted to any creative work. Instead, the Wikimedia community is committed to principles of free information similar to the principles that have been articulated for software by the free software and open source movements, allowing anyone to re-use the information for any purpose. This is accomplished through licenses which grant freedoms that people would not have under traditional copyright.
The license that was initially chosen for Wikipedia is the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) developed and maintained by the Free Software Foundation. Underscoring the deep connection between Wikipedia and the free software community, this license was originally developed for freely licensed software documentation. However, as Wikipedia and the other projects have grown and continued to expand rapidly, it has become increasingly apparent that Wikimedia is no longer as suited to this license as it may once have been. Therefore, to make Wikipedia content easier to use and legally compatible with existing free content projects, the Wikimedia Foundation proposed to the Wikimedia community to make all content currently distributed by the Wikimedia Foundation under the GFDL available under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license, where CC-BY-SA will exclude GFDL whenever third party content only licensed under the CC-BY-SA license is imported.
The GFDL has been recently updated in a fashion to make this re-licensing possible without direct petitioning of each copyright holder who contributed to a collaborative work (see below). The decision on whether to update the licensing terms was nevertheless democratically made through a global, community-wide vote, where a simple majority of qualified users will constitute sufficient support to make this change. The vote launched in early April, and ended on May 3rd.
How did this decision come about?
An original proposal was drafted by the Wikimedia Foundation after considerable discussions with the Free Software Foundation and Creative Commons. After an open discussion period, the proposal was then delivered to a volunteer license committee which oversaw the development of a timeline and the execution of a voting process for the proprosal. The license update committee worked with the independent, third party Software in the Public Interest group to establish an off-wiki voting process for the proposal. Voting was open to any Wikimedia volunteer who has made at least 25 edits on a Wikimedia Foundation wiki. Voting took place through April and May, with a final decision being delivered by the licensing committee to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees on May 15. The Board was required to further endorse the decision. With their resolution in place, the Wikimedia Foundation staff was instructed to begin carrying out the license change.
What is the GFDL license?
You can read more about the GFDL on Wikipedia:
What is the CC-BY-SA license?
You can read more about CC-BY-SA and other Creative Commons licenses on Wikipedia:
How many people voted? What was the result?
Over 17,000 Wikimedia volunteers voted in the election. The result can be found at
Is the Wikimedia Foundation pleased with this result?
Absolutely. The Wikimedia Foundation put forward the original proposal with the intent of further increasing the freedom of the content on Wikipedia and the Wikimedia projects, and to simplify the process for anyone to reuse Wikimedia project content.
How will the Wikimedia Foundation technically carry out the license switch, and when?
All relevant terms will be updated through June. A timeline can be found at:
Why did it take so long for this license change to take place?
Firstly, the licensing change depended on finding an appropriate agreement with the Free Software Foundation to update the GNU Free Documentation License, making it legally possible to revise Wikimedia's licensing terms. This agreement was concluded in November 2008 with the release of the GNU Free Documentation License 1.3. Since then, the Wikimedia Foundation has led a broad, consultative process with its global community of contributors to support the decision-making process. After all, Wikimedia's volunteers are the one who made the licensing decision in the first place: their commitment and support to any new licensing scheme was absolutely critical.
Why was the Wikimedia Foundation interested in moving from the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) to the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license (CC-BY-SA)?
To begin with a quote by Jimmy Wales:
"When I started Wikipedia, Creative Commons did not exist. The Free Documentation License was the first license that demonstrated well how the principles of the free software movement could be applied to other kinds of works. However, it is designed for a specific category of works: software documentation. The CC-BY-SA license is a more generic license that meets the needs of Wikipedia today, and I'm very grateful that the FSF has allowed this change to happen. Switching to CC-BY-SA will also allow content from our projects to be freely mixed with CC-BY-SA content. It's a critically necessary change for the future of Wikimedia."
The GFDL was originally formulated to address a specific set of problems, including the possibility that some companies might use non-free documentation as a way of encumbering otherwise free software. The design decisions that went into development of a documentation license don't always address the problems that come up with massive multi-user collaboration projects like Wikipedia, and they may in fact create new problems that make free content less easy to use.
This is a large part of the reason why Creative Commons has designed a specific generic copyleft license for works which are not software, the CC-BY-SA license. The Creative Commons licenses have seen rapid adoption on the web, with more than 130 million works estimated to be licensed under one of them (see Creative Commons Metrics for statistics). Unfortunately, works under CC-BY-SA and GFDL cannot directly be combined, creating an unnecessary but highly problematic compatibility barrier within the free culture movement.
The Free Software Foundation (which maintains the GFDL), Creative Commons (which maintains the CC-BY-SA license), and the Wikimedia Foundation (which operates Wikipedia among other free-culture projects) have worked together to develop a pathway to "migrate" or "re-license" Wikipedia content (and the content of similar wikis) to the CC-BY-SA license that combines the free-culture values of the GFDL with greater practical usability in the context of collaborative works.
What was wrong with the original GFDL license?
Wikipedia Community member David Gerard has provided a nice summary of the issues for us, so in the spirit of reusing useful content, we're adapting his summary:
"The GFDL was written as a license for software manuals on paper with one or a few authors. It's not at all suited to wiki content with possibly hundreds of editors. Wikipedia's predecessor, Nupedia, eventually adopted it at the time because the CC-BY-SA license didn't exist yet.
"The GFDL is very difficult to follow in practice, at least in contexts like massive multiuser collaborative projects like Wikipedia.
"Trying to obey can be onerous. Per the letter of the license, every significant (greater than fair use) quotation from a GFDL work needs a copy of the license (three or so pages of print) attached. GFDL content is almost impossible to reuse in audio or video content for this reason.
"Although easy to follow on the web (link to a local copy of the GFDL) or in a book (reproduce the three-page license), it's almost impossible to reuse in shorter pieces.
"The 'how to comply' pages on various Wikipedias are more what individual editors think is a good idea, not necessarily what the letter of the license says – as has been complained of by reusers accused of violation for not following this month's interpretation.
"Even cutting and pasting text between two Wikipedia articles is technically a violation unless the full author list for that piece of text is attached. This is not workable on a wiki.
"CC-BY-SA is becoming the usual license for free content intended to stay free ('copyleft'). That's a whole world of text, images, movies and so on that Wikimedia stuff can't be mixed with. (A software analogy is using a copyleft license that's not GPL-compatible – it makes your work an isolated island for no particular gain.)"
It is also worth pointing out that a literal interpretation of the attribution requirement of the GFDL requires complete duplication of the "history" section of the article with every derivative work (not just the author names – the entire section). For an article with thousands of revisions, this is obviously highly onerous, but even with just a smaller number of revisions, it is a significant amount of text.
Are you basically replacing the GFDL on Wikipedia with CC-BY-SA?
No, we proposed that all content currently available under GFDL will also be made available under the CC-BY-SA license, and that all future revisions must be dual licensed, with the exception of CC-BY-SA-only additions from external sources.
What is dual-licensing? How are you going to administer it?
It simply means that content will be available under both the GFDL and CC-BY-SA licenses simultaneously, unless some CC-BY-SA-only materials are imported and incorporated into that piece of content. In other words, reusers will be able to choose whether to reuse Wikipedia content under the GFDL license or the CC-BY-SA license (with a few exceptions). We have worked with Free Software Foundation and others to try to implement dual-licensing in a way that requires relatively little administrative overhead (or editor or user overhead). The outline of this arrangement were spelled out in e-mail by Richard Stallman, who was mindful of the need to make the problems of dual-licensing manageable:
  • ALL contributors agree to the following:
    Wikipedia can release their newly written text under both GFDL and CC-BY-SA in parallel. However, if they imported any external material that's available under CC-BY-SA and not under GFDL, Wikipedia is bound by that.
  • All old revisions are released under GFDL and CC-BY-SA.
  • All new revisions are released with this license statement:
    This page is released under CC-BY-SA. Depending on its editing history, it MAY also be available under the GFDL; see [link] for how to determine that.
How will re-users determine whether or not an article is available under GFDL?
The CC-BY-SA license requires attribution, so when third party content is imported under "CC-BY-SA-only", it will have to be noted who the author is and that it was released under CC-BY-SA, as part of the normal, existing procedures through which projects make note of such histories (we recommend the article footer or the version history). Re-users will have to consult this information to determine whether CC-BY-SA-only content has been imported. Our licensing guidelines will make that clear.
If the GFDL is so difficult for editors and users, why was it adopted for Wikipedia in the first place?
At the time Wikipedia began, there had already been some experimentation with other attempts at free licenses (at Nupedia and elsewhere), but none of them had the successful track record of the GFDL. At the same time, the Creative Commons free licenses had not been developed (or at least not in their current form). So GFDL at the time was the best option available. Now that GFDL has evolved, and CC-BY-SA is available, we have a better option available, and one that will provide more compatibility among free-culture projects.
Will the average Wikipedia or Wikimedia project user or editor notice any difference?
Our experience has been that relatively few editors and users are engaged enough with the licensing issues we're discussing here to be affected in any significant way by the update. However, we believe the difference will be highly significant for other communities and individuals developing or using Wikimedia content, as it makes Wikimedia's licensing easier to understand and ensures legal compatibility with other projects.
Does this license change affect all Wikimedia projects?
All Wikimedia projects (with the exception of Wikinews, which is already using a CC-BY license) will now use the dual license system.
Does this license change affect both text and images, or only text?
It will affect both text and images, except for images which are licensed under "GFDL 1.2 only". Those will not be dual-licensed.