An explanation of
the Citizendium license
Larry Sanger with a lot of help
from his friends
Preliminary notes (please read):
- Purpose: this long essay explains in depth why we have
chosen CC-by-sa as
the license for our own original collaborative content.
- Summary: this probably isn't an easy read. You can skip ahead to
license decision, and here is
of the reasoning behind it.
- About links: links to places within this essay are green,
while links to other pages are the usual
Since January 2007 when the Citizendium decided to
"unfork" from Wikipedia, or delete unchanged Wikipedia articles from our
database and encourage original work, the license for our own original articles
has been up in the air. We said only, on a generic notice on the wiki,
"All new articles will be available under an open content license yet to be
determined." Separately, I made it clear that we were considering the
GNU Free Documentation License
(GFDL for short), the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-by-sa), and the
Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike License (CC-by-nc-sa).
What these licenses all have in common is that, when a copyright owner
releases some data under them, then others may publish, or rework and republish, that data
free of charge or individual agreement. I will not, except indirectly, argue for these
common features, however interesting and necessary such an argument would be. The arguments here
instead concern how the licenses differ. They differ
primarily in that the GFDL and CC-by-sa allow
such reuse to be done for commercial purposes, while CC-by-nc-sa forbids
commercial uses. GFDL and CC-by-sa are, as I will say, "commercial
licenses" because they permit commercial reuse, while CC-by-nc-sa is called a
"noncommercial license" because it forbids commercial reuse. ('Noncommercial' is defined
below.) So the main
question examined here is: should the Citizendium adopt a commercial or a
Note that the GFDL (managed by the Free Software
Foundation) and CC-by-sa (managed by
Creative Commons) allow pretty much the same things: roughly speaking, reuse
for either commercial or noncommercial purposes, so long as credit (a name and a link back)
is given. They differ mainly in that the GFDL was originally written for
software documentation, and so has various features that are puzzling to
interpret when applied to things like wiki encyclopedias. I recommended
the GFDL for Wikipedia back
in 2001 because it was the best available open content license at the time--and
earned Wikipedia an endorsement from the Free Software Foundation's Richard
Stallman. Considering just
the terms of the licenses, it is widely agreed that CC-by-sa is a better license than
the GFDL for wiki encyclopedias.
Why this is hard to decide. The difficulty in deciding on a license is due to the strength of the
arguments on all sides. Each side has, it seems, a "knock-out" argument that
compels us to choose it--except for all the other "knock-out" arguments on the
other sides. In such a situation, the difficulty rests not with finding a flaw
in all but one argument, because that is probably not possible at all; the
difficulty rests in the task of weighing the relative merits of the arguments.
While I will present some "moral" arguments, the arguments are, generally, utilitarian:
they state that we should choose a certain way
because that choice will have good effects, or will avoid the bad effects of
other options. Comparing the force of such arguments requires estimating the probability
of various effects, and comparing the desirability or undesirability of these
Our question, therefore, becomes: what criterion or criteria should we use
to evaluate the desirability of various effects?
Hierarchy of values. Here I propose an informal hierarchy of values. Generally and roughly, securing the top-ranked
value is a higher priority than securing lower-ranked values. It is
possible--not to be hoped, but possible--that no such ranking of values is
forthcoming. We will simply have to look and see.
I stipulate in any case that the project's highest purpose is to provide
vast amounts of easily accessible and high quality content to the world, and this is a global,
not a local value. The project has other global purposes, or interests anyway. For example, we hope to serve as an
example of a better wiki project; and we hope to avoid libel or distributing
other harmful information. But providing a lot of high-quality content is clearly the most important
purpose. Hence, we are
ultimately working on behalf of humanity, not merely our own local community.
This purpose or end has various conditions and possible means, and so my
task then is to rank these. Clearly, the first and most obvious value is our
own survival, because we must exist in order to secure any other value. Still,
our own survival is merely a means to the end of providing good content, and
if we cannot do that, we might as well not exist. Besides, as we will
see, no license choice poses a threat to our survival.
What are our main means, or tools and methods, for providing good content?
There are many, of course. Motivating contributors and content partners is
one. An efficient content production system, and (if necessary) funds or
in-kind donations to develop software and pay organizers, are two more. Of
these, I stipulate that motivation is the next highest value, because with
adequately motivated contributors, everything else is achievable. Now, if we
were to secure a large enough source of funding, that would itself provide an
independent source of contributor motivation: some would be paid and others
would find financial support to be a good sign that the project is worth
participating in. Still, the end of such funding is, again, mainly motivated
Four factors of motivation. What, then, are the main means and conditions of motivated contributors
in collaborative projects? This is something I've made a special study of on several occasions, and
suffice it to say that it's complex and not particularly well understood. Here, however, are some main methods of motivating contributors that might be
relevant to the choice of a license:
- Culture: encourage a dual culture, both democratic and
meritocratic, or a culture that appeals to experts and the general public as
much as possible.
- Free license: contributors should understand that their work is
not only free to read, but is free to be copied and distributed elsewhere,
i.e., is not necessarily in the hands of a single entity. Interestingly and confusingly, the choice of a license itself can have a
direct effect on the motivation of contributors--and, therefore, on the
choice of a license. In short, the very desire for a particular
license is one reason to choose that license.
- Maintain good public relations: maintain an effective public
relations strategy so that the press and Blogosphere also helps raise
consciousness and motivate people to join, and makes it easier to recruit
- Ease of use: make the system itself as easy as possible to use.
(There are other important methods of motivating contributors, but they do
not seem relevant to the choice of a license.)
Can we rank the importance of any of the above considerations? They
each have a special role to play in contributor motivation, and in the growth
and impact of the project as a result--and so also in the choice of a license.
For some individuals, some of the items
determine their motivation much more than others.
A poll of 49 of our most active contributors revealed
that a surprisingly large number don't really care about the license very
much. (About a third of the respondents said they didn't care or know
enough to offer an opinion, and only half of 100 people responded. More
about this poll soon.) For others, I think the fact that they do, or do
not, feel comfortable in our community makes all the difference. But the
question ultimately is what factors are most important to contributor
motivation in general or on average.
Ranking the factors of motivation. On average, of the above four factors of motivation, I stipulate
(plausibly, I think) that culture is the most important. This is,
however, because the choice of a license is actually part of culture. If we choose a license that forbids commercial use, that puts us decidedly at
odds with the mainstream of the free culture/open source communities, from
which many of our authors (and some of our editors) come. Similarly,
however, if we choose a license that permits commercial use, that might upset
and put off some academics, who are used to working under "educational
use only" copyright arrangements, and who have no small amount of hostility to
exploitation by profit-making corporations.
Maintaining good public relations is next most important, in the sense
that, if our reputation is very poor, it will be extremely difficult to
motivate all but the most stalwart of contributors. Finally, ease of
use, while deeply important, is not a huge problem
for many of our most active contributors, and it is a problem that can be
fixed over time, regardless of the choice of license.
Still, we should bear in mind that there are aspects of the license
decision that might directly impact our ability to make much good
content easily available, and they do not do so by affecting our culture or
the factors of motivation generally. If this is not immediately clear,
it should become so in the following.
The task ahead. So onto the main event: the
actual evaluation of the merits of different arguments. Here I suspect I
am going to frustrate a lot of people. I'm afraid I haven't taken the
time to make my writing style more palatable to a popular audience (that's
work!). Also, I will carefully point out the
flaws in arguments for the position I support; and I will admit
significant strengths in arguments for positions I oppose. This
is going to strike some people as wishy-washy, but I'm merely trying to be
honest. In the
end, I hope it will be clear that the Citizendium's position is driven
strictly by a fair evaluation of the merits of the arguments, as evaluated
using the criteria set out above.
I propose first, in two very long parts, to examine some arguments for
using a noncommercial license (CC-by-nc-sa) and then for using a commercial
license (CC-by-sa or GFDL). Then, more briefly, I will answer the question, "Which license will maximize participation?" Lastly, I will study what relationship we should have with Wikipedia, and
which license conduces most to that.
This piecemeal evaluation of the arguments, however important it might be,
might ultimately prove to be inconclusive. I will have to use a final
section to draw a conclusion and summarize the arguments from a global
The arguments on
both sides are, in general,
utilitarian. But there is another sort of
argument, which does not appeal--at least not directly--to benefits and harms.
It appeals, instead, to things like duties, rights, fairness, and commitments. Call such
arguments "moral" arguments as opposed to "pragmatic" or "utilitarian"
arguments. (Philosophers might prefer the more neutral term "deontological"
argument where I use "moral"; utilitarianism is a moral theory,
The argument introduced. There is a moral argument for a
noncommercial license that runs, in a brief version, as follows. To permit
commercial use of content is, specifically, to allow companies to make a
profit from the use of the content. But the content itself was donated by
volunteers working without
compensation. So--the argument goes--it treats those volunteers
very unfairly to allow their work to be used by anyone to make a profit. If
anyone should profit from the content, one might say, it should be the
volunteers. Companies that have little to do with the creation of the content
do not deserve the profits they make.
There is a particularly pointed way to make this argument (which I alluded
a blog post). Suppose the Citizendium grows to the
size of Wikipedia. This is quite possible, however probable or improbable you think it might be. Suppose also that, because we are of that size, we have the participation of
a sizable portion of all the leading intellectuals of the world, in every
field--and so, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of
approved articles. These are all long, complete with many links,
bibliography, etc., etc.--all the
subpage stuff. It's reference utopia.
If we adopt a license that permits commercial reuse, then every major media
company in the world could use CZ content. Such companies are in regular need
material of various kinds to supplement their publications, and many already
have deals in place with reference publishers. A commercial license would
permit CBS News, Fox News, The New York Times, English tabloids,
Chinese propaganda sheets, Yahoo!, Google, and all sorts of giant new media
companies to use our content without any compensation to us. Perhaps, in time, these media companies would find ways to leverage
high-quality Citizendium content to create significant profits. None of that, however, need go actually to support the work of the
Citizendium. But this--goes the argument--is obviously unfair. Therefore, we should use a noncommercial license, one that would require just
compensation for profit-making use.
are apt to be persuaded by this argument immediately, as it explains their
hostility to free commercial licenses. Others will understand it on some
level, but find it puzzling. Sure, it might seem unfair, but what really is
unfair about the situation? One might say that the situation might
seem unfair, but if one cannot explain why it's unfair, then one cannot
assume that it is actually unfair.
I find straightforward avowals and denials about the fairness of the
situation highly unsatisfying. We won't get to the bottom of this argument
until at least we understand why it seems unfair, and then either
affirm or reject those reasons as good reasons to think the situation is
Some replies. Consider some replies to the argument. First, one might well reply that many people do in fact contribute under
the GPL and the GFDL, and other free commercial licenses, and so they clearly
do not find the situation unfair.
This reply, however, proves little. The fact that there are people who find
nothing unfair about the situation does not mean that there are not others,
who would contribute to a free project, if it used a free noncommercial
license. Besides, the contributors could simply be confused; one might be
treated unfairly, after all, and not realize it. That has happened
throughout history. They might not understand
what is unfair about the situation until after they have already contributed
information that will go to enrich others.
Second, more promisingly, we can make a positive (and common) argument that
the arrangement is indeed fair. Consider that we all do have equal rights to profit from a free
commercial project. If one person avails himself of this right and succeeds in
making money, that does not deprive any other contributor of the right to make
money as well. Why be upset about someone else making money from the Citizendium
(or whatever)? If you want, you can do just the same.
This is an interesting argument, to be sure, but it isn't to the point.
Just because the licensing situation is equal or fair in one respect (i.e., in
the rights to make a profit), that does not mean that it is fair in all other
respects as well. Suppose John is a Citizen and Joan is an entrepreneur
who has no interest in contributing to the Citizendium. Well, just
because John and Joan enjoy the right to profit from the Citizendium--which
is, granted, fair enough--if Joan hits upon some scheme to make a lot of money
from it, and John doesn't, John still might regard that as unfair. Joan is
still making money from something that John created (helped create), without
After these replies, one might be tempted to say, "Whatever--the burden is
on the person who thinks the situation is unfair. If you can't explain
it, you have nothing but a feeling to go on. You have no real reason to think
Fairness, desert, and rights. Let's get quite clear on what situation strikes some as unfair: that one specific
party is making money from some information, when neither the creator(s) of
that information nor the organization that allowed it to be organized and
hosted receives any of the money. It is not at all self-evident that this is
an unfair situation. After all, this is true of, for example, folk music, you
might say. But
the traditional musicians who served as the sources of "folk" popularizers did sometimes
greatly resent it when those popularizers got rich with little more than a
thanks to the actual sources of the music. The cases are not all that
Clearly, the unfairness has to do with
what philosophers call "desert" (not the hot dry places, but whether we deserve something or not)
or rights. The
reason the situation might seem unfair is that the content exploiters do not
deserve their profits; they have no right to them. Alternatively,
we might say the content providers deserve a piece of any profit; they
have a right to it. If that's correct, then we need only ask a question: why
do they deserve a piece of any profit? Perhaps, we might say, there is a
general principle, to wit, you deserve or have a right to compensation for
whatever you create,
if someone else profits from it. And to fail to get what you deserve is just
what unfairness is.
But this principle, correct or not, doesn't settle the issue. After all, contributors to free software
and free content projects do donate the fruits of their labor for everyone's
use. That is, the vast majority of free software and free content projects are
set up so that others can profit on the backs of volunteers.
Presumably, those volunteers have given up any right they might have to be compensated
for their labor. That's how the system explicitly works. What's unfair?
What's potentially unfair is this: the fact that there are people who have
given up that right doesn't mean that others would prefer not to give up
that right. Most contributors to a project just go along with the license, and
into the bargain is thrown their (alleged) right to be compensated in case
anyone profits. In that sense, if you want to contribute to a free commercial
project, you don't have a choice about whether to give up your (alleged) right
Theoretically anyway, it doesn't have to be that way. The fact that people in free
software and free culture projects do routinely seem to give up their right to
be compensated, out of the profits of their "exploiters," does not help us
settle the question what our license should be. What is at issue is not
whether you have the right to be compensated for your labor; you do have that
right, if you haven't given it up. What is at issue is whether we should give
up this right in the first place.
Notice that I use the first person plural: "whether we
should give up this right." It is precisely the fact that this decision has to
be made for
everyone that makes this difficult. Some people say they license their
contributions under some less restrictive license than whatever is used by a
given project. This is presumably their right, but it's nevertheless pointless
and silly because anyone who republishes collaboratively created content will
not consult the statements made by individual contributors. Like it or not,
the decision really is made collectively. Presumably, it must be, or else there
wouldn't be a (collaborative) project in the first place.
The dialectic (as I've represented it, anyway) then turns to that question:
why would we, as a corporate body, want to give up the right to compensation? We could do so, to be sure. But why would we want to?
leads to the more purely utilitarian arguments (i.e., about advantages and
disadvantages). If there are great benefits to be secured by our giving
up our rights to be compensated, then perhaps we should do so. But if
the benefits are not so great, then we might not wish to do so; and then we
might say, and with excellent justification it seems, "Since we do not wish to give
up our right to be compensated for profit-making uses, a commercial license
would set up a situation we would regard as
unfair." So the question of whether a noncommercial license is required
by considerations of fairness actually turns on more utilitarian
Could the Citizendium's content make anyone rich? If, in
a rosy future, Citizendium content is copious and good enough to help
media giants to turn a profit, then by using a CC-by-nc-sa license, forbidding
free use of our content, we might earn money for the project by selling
licenses that permit commercial use. In fact, this insight has led some of our Citizens to demand a noncommercial license:
it's simply in our own interest. We would be fools, they say, to give up what could end up being a huge boon to
the project--all the more so since those funds would be placed in the hands of
corporations that have nothing to do with the production of the content they
On first glance--if you can temporarily set aside your preconceived
notions--one has to admit that this looks right. If media giants
are making large profits in part by the use of Citizendium content,
perhaps we ought to help ourselves to some of that, rather than simply giving
it away. In that case, perhaps we should use a noncommercial license,
and sell a reuse license to profit-making entities. It seems a
CC-by-nc-sa license could let us do that.
The first thing to notice,
however, is that this is a conditional argument. What are the chances of
all three of the following occurring?
- The Citizendium grows to such a size and quality that it could be used
by mainstream media companies.
- Those companies in fact want to use our content (in any of the various
ways in which it might be used).
- Their use of our content in fact significantly enhances their profits.
It would seem immodest to expect (1) and (2) with any high degree of
certainty, and as to (3), evaluating it requires a knowledge of the publishing
business (and the future thereof) that I sadly lack. But I will give it
a stab anyway.
What I can say firmly is that all three seem possible. There are, after all, companies
used Wikipedia content as part of their business models--answers.com is
probably the best known.
But Wikipedia content is probably not making
any of its republishers rich. (For one thing, answers.com has
struggled to reach profitability.) Still, one might argue, the Citizendium
could be very different from Wikipedia in this regard. In short, we
could have in time a fund of editor-approved articles that can compare positively not
just with Wikipedia, but with most (perhaps all) professionally edited
(I understand of course that we don't have many approved
articles yet; but this is mainly because approval hasn't been a high enough
priority of mine, as many of our editors will attest. Still, we will
be improving the efficiency of our approval process, and I intend to do all
I can to increase the proportion of our approved articles by an order of
magnitude at least.)
Anyway, the point is that a successful
Citizendium could be considerably more valuable to publishers than a
successful Wikipedia. Information companies generally depend on the
credibility and reliability of information for their business, and both
credibility and reliability are advantages that a successful Citizendium
would enjoy. The amount of reuse that the Citizendium gets from
media companies might be considerably higher than Wikipedia gets. That
reuse could be fee-based, and if the fee were reasonable, the companies
might well pay. It would be foolish indeed to
rule this possibility out of hand.
Still, as long as citizendium.org remains free to
read--which of course it always will be--that in itself might be dissuade
companies from paying a very significant fee. The business managers
would always be asking themselves, "Why on Earth should we pay a premium for
content that users can read free anyway? We can simply creatively link
I also think that in the coming years, it will become increasingly
easy to find exactly what you are looking for virtually instantly. The
main advantage of including a copy of the Citizendium in a
website is that a company may then surround the content with ads, or use the
content to enhance some services. But if
you can always find the Citizendium article as quickly (or nearly so)
as you could find it on some other website, there is no reason to look for
the article on that website. This is arguably already the case with
Wikipedia (at this writing, Alexa rank of 8) and answers.com (Alexa rank of
It is possible that reuse of Citizendium content
could, in the future, make someone a tidy profit. But after
consideration, it just doesn't strike me as very likely. My mere
guesses don't refute the argument from our financial interest, to be sure,
but it makes the argument appear weaker than it might have seemed at first. We're fools for giving away something so valuable, you insist? Well,
there's a good chance that it won't turn out to be as valuable as it might
have seemed at first.
Reply: the problem about license sharing. But there
is another reply that is even more problematic. For those unfamiliar
with the arcana of free licenses, it might just have seemed obvious that the
Citizendium could, i.e., was in a position to, sell a license to
if our articles were themselves freely available only under a CC-by-nc-sa
license. But this is by no means clear.
The biggest problem with the
Citizendium charging a license fee for commercial use is that no single
representative of the project--not the Citizendium Foundation, certainly not
me--actually owns the copyrights to the entire collection of content. On the
accepted view of these matters, whatever license the project chooses, each individual submits his or her
contributions under that license. The Citizendium has not
declared that individuals are, by contributing content, thereby
transferring or in any way sharing their copyright with the
Citizendium Foundation, and so it is problematic to suppose the Foundation is
in any position to negotiate a fee.
If we did want to sell licenses to
commercial operations, two ways have been suggested to attempt to get around
this problem. First, we might ask authors' permission to share copyright
with the Citizendium Foundation. It is not clear, however, whether this
is legally possible. So, second, we might ask them simply to grant the
Foundation the right to negotiate, collectively, a fee on their behalf, much
as an agent would negotiate a fee for an anthology. This sort of thing
is not unheard of; the Free Software Foundation Europe has posted a
Agreement, though its purpose is not to negotiate an agreement, but to
defend programmers legally and to relicense software under improved licenses. (My thanks to the contributors of a Citizendium
discussion page on this issue for pointing this out.)
Even if legally
feasible, it may be politically difficult. In fact, it might even be so
wrenching and destructive to the community that it is not worth attempting to
"sell" the proposal to Citizens. Let's examine why, and see whether
there might not be some way around this problem.
It is tantamount to asking
Citizens to recognize, en masse, a single entity to speak on their behalf, not
only collectively, but individually. When this option was
a number of Citizens objected that they would not trust any body to be able
represent them fairly. Suppose a representative body of contributors had
the right to review or even make the license agreements, and also managed the
budget. But even this suggestion was met with some resistance; if the representative
body were an inner circle of the Citizendium Foundation, such as a Board of
Directors, that would be even worse, on the view of the objectors.
Legally, the Board would have to have ultimate authority; that would make many
participants quite nervous. Perhaps rightly so.
There are actually two
possible problems here. The first is the political
impact of the objection itself, i.e., the controversy over the
centralization of fiduciary authority. The second is that there really might
be something wrong with a body representing the Citizendium for
purposes of negotiating license fees. Let me take these in turn.
First, there would certainly be some political risk involved in proposing that
any representative body be given authority over legal and money matters on
behalf of the entire project. Regardless of the merits of the
objections, certainly there will be some who react with hostility to any
suggestion that any body can speak for them, personally. This is
particularly the case for people in the open source software community and the
allied free culture movement: for all the talk of collaboration and reuse,
there is (charmingly) little support for "collectivization" or "unionization" of rights and
finances. (Exceptions occur when there is serious infringement of a free
license.) It is hard to say exactly how serious a problem this political
infighting might be for the Citizendium as a community, but I think it
would probably be significant and almost certainly not trivial. That is, a very
vocal contingent of contributors would initially resist and campaign against
any such organization; and, then, if we were to organize in the way
suggested, some of them would probably make a lot of noise in demanding that
all of their contributions be removed.
To be sure, political controversy
need not by itself stop us from taking action; after all, whatever choice of
license we settle on is bound to be controversial. But license sharing
is not strictly required by the choice of a noncommercial
license--although it might be the only way to make a noncommercial license
particularly palatable. (More on that
Second, what dangers are
there in empowering a body to negotiate licensing fees and to distribute the
proceeds? Potentially, this makes knowledge more politicizable and more capable of being controlled financially. There are indeed three dangers here: political, financial, and legal.
First, the political danger. In recent generations, too many academics have
become motivated by politics,
especially in the humanities and social sciences. They regard "remaking
the world" as part of their academic mission, sometimes above the mission of
truth-seeking (though few would admit this openly, I suppose). As academics would almost certainly dominate a licensing
and budging body, one might well fear that they would sometimes make decisions
motivated by politics--decisions that have relatively little to do with the
effectiveness of distributing Citizendium content or with the project's
financial interests. We can easily anticipate ongoing arguments that
begin, "I have contributed much content that is of great monetary value to
this project, and I think..." There is something unseemly about that.
Second, the financial danger. We ought to bear in mind the adage that he who
pays the piper calls the tune. It is easy to imagine a lucrative
agreement with a large corporation, which insists (however quietly or
diplomatically) on a certain editorial slant or policy as the price of the
agreement. Indeed, even lacking such an open agreement, editors and
project managers might well self-censor based on what they know are naturally
in the financial interests of the project.
But perhaps these two points
don't prove much. As to the political danger, it is probably impossible
to avoid politicizing any representative body in
the project, and that might not actually be a bad thing, anyway. (Does it
really make sense to complain that politics is politicized?) Politicization is not a special problem afflicting just
discussions of licensing fees and budget outlays. And as to the
financial danger, the adage about the piper is equally applicable regardless
of how the Citizendium is funded: if we are funded mainly through
foundation grants, then we must meet the criteria of the foundations, which
can be equally biased, and probably more so. It is not as if foundations
are magically free of bias simply because they are non-profit; unlike most
corporations, many foundations are set up in part to move the world in a
particular political direction. Nonprofits pay pipers, and want to call
their tunes, too.
Still, there is still a very significant difference
between being a vendor in a commercial relationship and being the beneficiary
of a donation. Both have strings attached, but vendors typically have legal
obligations far above the obligations imposed on the recipients of donations.
And that brings us to the third point, which is the legal danger. Content owners have greater legal liability. If the Citizendium
does not actually hold any copyrights itself, but merely aggregates other
people's content, then there is less legal ground on which to sue the project. This strikes me as a fairly important consideration, actually. It seems
that, if we grow to the size and credibility we hope for, it is only a matter
of time before we face liability and copyright lawsuits. Unless we can
be quite certain that we can absorb such costs--and we definitely cannot,
now--then it is a considerable advantage to minimize our liability.
on the whole issue of copyright sharing, it is worth reflecting on the very
idea of "collectivizing" or "unionizing" a project like the Citizendium,
and thereby becoming an entity with special financial obligations and
legal liabilities. There is no question that it is a burden
to have such obligations and liabilities, and it would be far better,
everything else being equal, to remain unencumbered.
would also be, arguably, more appropriate to remain unencumbered, particularly for a project
that is devoted to openness and being bottom-up. As long as the project
is relatively free of obligations and liabilities, it is easier to remain open
and bottom-up; as soon as we have to start worrying about being sued, or
delivering a product or service on time, then the increased risks will create pressures to make the
project more closed and more closely controlled from the top down. One
can imagine how a project bound up with the marketplace could, over the long
term, come to resemble a "business" itself, and therefore
institutionally contemptuous of newcomers,
bureaucratized, and increasingly controlled from the top.
might recall that one of the key pieces of our identity is that we are an
online constitutional republic. A republic, to be robust, should avoid legal and
financial relationships that pose a threat to its sovereignty. It
might, therefore, be best for our own "sovereignty" (or independence) if we
remain unencumbered by financial and legal relationships. The
"constitutional" advantages of avoiding such relationships might turn out to
be worth far more than whatever money might be generated. While this
point can be stated briefly, it strikes me as extremely important indeed.
I do not pretend
that the considerations of the last few paragraphs are definitive. I can
imagine someone arguing that our taking on responsibilities of
greater obligation and liability, and perhaps struggling to remain open and
sovereign, are just the costs of staying true to our educational mission.
But, on my analysis anyway, such an attitude doesn't seem very persuasive.
A noncommercial license without license
sharing? Suppose that you find these considerations decisive, both against
license sharing and so also against the argument from our financial interest. (I don't think they are perfectly decisive.)
But if you thought the only good reason to insist on a noncommercial license
was to be able to raise money for the project through license fees, then the
failure of the case for license sharing would leave you no reason to support a
Still, you might want to use a noncommercial
license for some other reason I have not yet covered. What is
interesting about such a position, however, is that it would prevent
everyone from making money on commercial uses of Citizendium
content. And surely this is a position that resonates with a few
people--but probably not many. In our discussions, those who hate the
idea of uncompensated commercial use have not, as far as I recall, come out
against all commercial use altogether.
Still, we can imagine someone saying: "The Citizendium is a knowledge project. Whatever its differences, it has much in common with purely academic projects. Such projects permit educational and non-profit uses, but no commercial uses
at all, because they are committed to authoritative, independent
information." First, in many cases, the latter is false. Academic
projects of all sorts often have commercial applications, and the fact that
they have such applications is not usually taken to entail the corruption of
the project. It is, instead, merely a reflection of the fact that
academics sometimes produce things (such as biomedical research or engineering
advances) that have
applications the marketplace will reward. That is not, in itself,
something to be concerned about, in my opinion.
Perhaps it is not
fair or right that we might produce content that people exploit for profit,
without compensation to us. What is clear to me,
however, is that the reason it would not be fair is not simply because
someone is making a profit based on a knowledge project, period. Personally, I think making profits, whether based on a knowledge project or
not, is a moral activity. It's not my thing, but I don't begrudge
people their more lucrative interests.
commercial reusers will support us financially. Despite my analysis, you might
still have qualms about uncompensated commercial use of the Citizendium's
content. There is a solid point that helps mitigate these
qualms, however. It is that, if we are successful enough to attract
commercial reuse, our commercial users can be expected to support
us through donations. This means that people who do profit from our work
will help ensure we do not go entirely unrewarded for it. To be sure,
this does not remove any objections on grounds of unfairness, i.e.,
objections to commercial profiteering on the backs of volunteer Citizens. But it does constitute
at least a partly effective reply to the argument from
our own financial interest: we will, after all, reap some financial
Unsurprisingly, the case of Wikipedia is instructive here. A
number of corporations that benefit from Wikipedia support it through cash and
in-kind donations, but not at a level at which it can sustain its own
operations. The majority of Wikipedia's operating funds comes through
individual donations, not from commercial reusers.
if successful, can probably expect to be better supported by commercial
reusers, for the simple reason that the Citizendium's content would be
more commercially valuable than Wikipedia's. But this is by no means
certain, of course.
The relevant question here is whether the Citizendium
would receive significantly more money through license fees (if we used
a noncommercial license) or through donations (if we used a commercial
license). I don't think there is any way to know this with any certainty
at all. On the one hand, there would no doubt be more commercial
use, if commercial use were free, and hence there would be more entities
willing to donate to us, which could bring a tidy sum. On the other hand, the
total fees that commercial reusers are willing to pay could be considerably more
than that, even if smaller in number. If I had to guess, I would say that we would in the end
receive more money if we were to charge license fees. But I really have
no idea, and I doubt there is any way to know in advance.
It does seem likely, however, that our commercial reusers
would not allow the project to collapse altogether due to lack of funds. "That's something,"
as they say.
Reply: small commercial reuse is harmless yet important. Another reply is perhaps less momentous, but still worth mentioning. Suppose a blogger who runs ads on his blog wanted to reproduce a
Citizendium article; it does no harm to do so, and indeed, the increased
publicity of the project is more valuable than any tiny amount of cash the
blog post might have earned him. (Most bloggers, of course, earn
virtually nothing--even some very popular ones.)
More generally, free reuse
encourages a kind of online public awareness of a project that is far more
valuable to the project, and to the overall aims of the project, than the tiny
amount of revenue that we might reasonably request for all such reuse. Of course, if we required a fee, no such small reusers would pay it, and
probably our content would be much less publicized than it would be otherwise.
And this sort of publicity is arguably very important. For one thing,
completely free reusability encourages people not only to reuse content, but
to link to it and talk about it. It "feels" to the Web 2.0 crowd like
something that is owned more in common, and for that reason, something they
can support with such publicity.
The use of a noncommercial license would
forbid this sort of use--and that is, I would say, a problem.
Suppose we announce that the
Citizendium will be free for commercial use. Then we can perhaps use this to do
fundraising for the project even now. "Don't you think your company will
be able to make use of Citizendium content after a few years?" goes the
pitch. "Then consider donating, and ensure that the project continues to
accelerate its growth."
Moreover, we might (in various ways) make it an
informal, legally nonbinding expectation that commercial reusers compensate us
for their use. Language on a page about reuse might state: "We believe
in free reuse for all. Nevertheless, particularly if you make a profit
from your use of our content, we believe it is only fair that you share some
of the proceeds back with the project. We do not require this, but
surely it is the least you can do, if you are using the labor of thousands of
volunteers to enrich your own personal concern. We feel it is important
that those who profit from our work 'give back' generously."
variant would be to make the content available to everyone under a commercial
license, excepting for-profit companies that are making above a certain
level of revenue or profit: the community might vote on the size of the
corporation. For them, a noncommercial license would be in effect, and
they would legally have to purchase the right of reuse.
But the latter too
could be a non-legally binding expectation, which would avoid the problems
enumerated above. We might place on our page
about reuse: "You may use the Citizendium's content legally without
compensation. However, if your concern has a profit margin above X, then
we will request a minimum yearly donation. This is not legally required,
but it is expected by our community." If a company does use our content
without compensating us at least at the requested amount, that could be made a
PR problem for them. The headline would read:
Successful Corporation Abuses Citizendium Content
Profits from but Refuses to Support the Community
No commercial concern would wish to see that headline.
A third argument for a noncommercial license can be canvassed much more
briefly. A commercial license would have a definite disadvantage. Suppose that we require all media that is contributed to the
Citizendium to be licensed under the same license (which permits
commercial use) as the license for the text. Then we (the
Citizendium) could not use, for example, the work of artists who would be
happy to let their work be used for nonprofit purposes, but who do not wish to
give their work away for commercial purposes. There are already, in
fact, many copyrighted images on the Citizendium, including some for
which we have
specific permission, though the copyright holder has not given up any
further rights. Such use should be permitted. Therefore--goes the
argument--we should use a noncommercial license. That way, we will be
able to continue to use such work.
It seems plausible that work licensed for
noncommercial use only might be on
average of higher quality, though I cannot cite any evidence for this point. At least,
we will be able to secure the work of professionals if we do
not require them to release their work under a commercial license. So,
in the interest of higher quality media, we should use a noncommercial
But this argument does not prove very much. Regardless of
what license we use for article text, we can allow people to submit media
however licensed, as long as it is of a sort that gives the Citizendium
the legal right to use it. Indeed, that has been our
and I don't propose to change it. So special and separate permission
will have to be sought for reuse of much (not all) of our media. Therefore, the argument from noncommercial media doesn't really support the
use of a noncommercial license for our article text.
Similar remarks can be
made about the licensing of
signed articles: the Citizendium is willing
to host, with permission, signed articles that cannot be further redistributed
without separate permission.
A simple argument for compatibility with Wikipedia. There is a
simple moral argument that we should adopt a license compatible with
Wikipedia's--and so, a commercial license. We can use Wikipedia's content, so to be fair, Wikipedia
should be able to use ours. For Wikipedia to be able to use ours, we
must make our content reusable under either the GFDL or else CC-by-sa (which
is soon to be made
compatible with the GFDL). To be sure, equal reusability isn't legally required. We're well
within our legal rights to choose a different license from Wikipedia's for all
the new content that we create. The point is that, one might well argue, it
is morally required to make our content equally reusable by Wikipedia.
While interesting, I don't find the argument to be persuasive. I would
reply with a little reductio. If anyone who uses Wikipedia's
content is morally obligated to release all of their original content under
the same license, that would require any project that used just one
Wikipedia article to use Wikipedia's license, for the sake of parity. But that seems absurd. It surely isn't the case that "just one drop
taints the whole batch." More to the point, any such moral obligation
should be reflected in the license itself: you have the right to be upset with
your reusers, if they don't use the same license for content they've
created, only if your license obligates them to do so. Such a license is
not likely to be employed, however, simply because it is far too viral,
and few people want, as it were, to work for the hegemony of any single
The argument from the definition of "free." Perhaps the most
common and simplest argument for allowing commercial use is also, I think, a
"moral argument" in approximately the same sense that there is
argument for a noncommercial license.
However billed, the argument goes like this. At least since Richard Stallman codified the
prevailing "hacker ethic" of share-and-share-alike in his open source software
licenses of the GNU projects, started in the 1980s, it has been a common
component of open source software projects that they be released under a
license that permits commercial reuse. In fact, this has become part of
definition of "open source", as promulgated by the Open Source
Initiative. Section 6 of the definition reads: "The license must not restrict
anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For
example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business..." Indeed, Lawrence Lessig came under
some criticism (rather ridiculously, on my view) merely for including
noncommercial licenses, including the one we are considering, CC-by-nc-sa,
among his set of Creative Commons licenses.
In the mouths of open source
advocates, "open source" is equivalent, ceteris paribus or
changing only what is necessary to apply to content, to both "open
content" and "free." (It's all information.) Content cannot properly be called open
content, or free, unless it is licensed so as to permit commercial use. So if the Citizendium were to use a noncommercial license, it would
not be free by definition. But it is obvious that the Citizendium should be
free; there is something morally questionable about failure to be free; therefore, we must not use a noncommercial license. That's the
Replies: definitions prove little, and gradations of freedom. While appealing to the open source crowd, this
argument is unlikely to prove much to anyone
else. However well motivated the "official" definition of "open source,"
and more generally, however solid the ground on which the advocates' notion of
"free information" (for a catch-all term) rests, it simply proves nothing to say
that we have defined "free" in such a way that you may not call your reference
work "free" unless you permit uncompensated commercial use.
there is a fairly straightforward reply. Beyond being free of charge to
read, it is possible to "fork" any project that is carried out under a
free-but-noncommercial license like CC-by-nc-sa. That is, the content
may be copied and then reworked by anyone else, so long as they do not exploit
the content commercially. Therefore, the content is not tied to any one
person or group: it is "free" or "independent" of any such particular social
ties. That seems like a very important sense of "free"--far more
important than "free for others to profit from." The only
sense in which the content is not free is that it cannot be freely developed
and published for commercial purposes. Granted, it is less free
for that reason; but why should it follow that it is not free at all,
then? Surely, the fact that the content can be copied and reworked under
the same license makes it importantly free. To deny that it is free in
any sense looks like simple, ideologically-motivated narrow-mindedness.
Indeed, one can easily take the open source advocates' position to an extreme. Attribution--the "by" part in "CC-by-sa," or giving credit to the original source--is
required by all these licenses. But if a noncommercial license is called nonfree because it restricts for what purposes the content can be reused, then
we can say that the attribution requirement, too, makes a license nonfree. After all, that requirement makes reuse dependent on
your willingness to credit the authors. But what if I don't want to credit the authors? Then my hands are tied: I'm not free to do so. We ought to say, then,
that only renouncing all copyrights, and releasing content into the public
domain, makes the content free. So, by similar reasoning, CC-by-sa is not a
free license, if CC-by-nc-sa is not. Neither are fully free.
source advocates would take issue with the latter suggestion. Public
domain content is not free, they say, because modified versions of such
content can be copyrighted and made wholly proprietary. An open source
license carries a guarantee of freedom, which the public domain does not. But this is not correct. The original content, once in the public
domain, forever remains in the public domain. Only adaptations can be
copyrighted; if you copyright an adaptation, that does not magically remove
the source material from the public domain. So, if you are
organizing content and you fail to release it into the public domain, you are
certainly restricting the freedom of others to do something that, after
all, they might very much wish to do--namely, to copyright their own versions. Under any open source/open content license,
they are not free to do that; they are
bound by your wishes. If you say, "Who cares? That sort of freedom is
not what we mean by 'free'," then of course my answer is: "On what grounds
should we care about any particular sense of 'free'? It is
Of course, the
reasonable position is that there are gradations of copyright freedom,
and some of them are more reasonable and recommendable than others. CC-by-sa is, to be sure, more free than CC-by-nc-sa; but
the BSD license
is freer than both of these, and on my view the public domain is freest of all.
To say that any one of the licenses is "free" to a greater or lesser extent
does not help us to rank the desirability of the various licenses (and the
lack of a license).
The argument from "what information wants" (to be
free, of course). There
more sophisticated moral argument for allowing commercial use,
which does not rely on stipulative definitions of key concepts or dogmatism
about where to draw the line across the gradations of freedom. It begins
with an answer--but not the only answer--to the question, "Why is it important
that information be free, anyway?" The byword of the free information movement
wants to be free." So, why does it? At least one reason forms
the basis of a moral argument for a commercial license.
On one account,
information "wants to be free" simply because, in the digital age, there is no reason
to constrain it. It is so easy to store and transfer, that any
restrictions on its free flow must be specifically imposed. The
advantages of the free flow of information are so many and varied that,
without even listing them out, we can identify the freedom of information as
an important principle. You need to have a good reason to keep
information boxed in. By this general principle, then, we should use a
commercial license, because that allows information to flow freely for
As appealing as this argument might be, the problem is
that it "proves too much." If, as a thoroughgoing principle, information
"wants to be free," then again we ought to give up all copyrights and release
our work to the public domain. You might be inclined to say that this
does not guarantee the future freedom of this information, but it does after
all guarantee the maximum freedom of this information--even the freedom
to become proprietary, which again is for some an important freedom.
There are some ideologues who would have us do away
with all copyrights and all patents, and perhaps we should, if it is true that
information wants to be free. Indeed, some wackos might even prefer that
we make medical records public. But for me, this is a reductio ad
absurdum. The abundant advantages of having copyrights and
patents--and privacy, such as closed medical records--makes it clear that free-spirited information, like
children, shouldn't be given what everything it wants.
The argument from social
ownership. Here is another argument, which is the most
persuasive of the moral arguments, I think. In brief, it goes like this. We
might say that whatever radical collaborations produce is "owned" by large, changeable,
indiscriminate groups of people.
In short, it
is "socially owned." A
condition of the very existence of such products of collaboration is that they be owned
socially. But there is nothing special about any particular group of
people that creates a particular Citizendium article, for example; it
could have been another group entirely. When the actual composition of
the group is irrelevant to ownership, then the
broadest range of uses should be possible, including commercial uses. So, we should adopt a
There is one interesting thing about this article that
needs elaboration: the idea that productions are "socially owned." Will
this stand up to scrutiny?
Suppose, as is often the case, many
people contribute to a particular article. Although the edit history
makes it clear who added (or removed) which part of the article, individual
edits are not valuable apart from the whole article. Furthermore, an
individual article, regardless of how brilliant, loses most of its value if
removed from the overall collection of articles: what makes an encyclopedia
article really valuable is the fact that it is part of an interconnected web
of content. Therefore, while legally
all and only the contributors jointly "own" the article--if the
article as whole can be said to have a legal owner at all--in a looser but still robust sense, it is
everyone in the project who "owns" the article. They each may, and are
even encouraged to, take responsibility for it, and to "make it their own." The barrier to joining the group of
"legal" or "official" co-owners of an article is very low.
And if a project is
particularly open, like the Citizendium, with people coming and going
pretty much at will and with almost no minimum qualifications, society at large has a
stake in the project. This is illustrated very well by the interest that
people take in Wikipedia articles. To be sure, this is partly because
Wikipedia is so widely used and so prominent in search results; but it is also
partly because the resource is created itself by the public.
The notion that society as a whole
"owns" the article becomes clearer if we imagine a
collaborative project over the period of many years, or even (though obviously this has
not happened yet) generations. Once some content, or software, is no
longer developed by any of its originators, it becomes especially obvious that the information
is at best held in trust by its current maintainers.
"Held in trust"
is the right phrase, I think, because it implies that the maintainers have an
obligation to do a good job, and if they do not, others have the right to step
in and try to do better. This is an essential feature of open source and
open content licenses and a key principle of the projects that use such
licenses. The reason that such projects can gain so many
contributors is precisely that they are free of control by any specific
group of people. If your contributions were always going to be beholden
to some particular, unchangeable group of owners, then you would be
much more nervous about contributing. It would be a little like
immigrating to a country that permitted neither emigration nor revolutionary
change. In any event, the point is that no particular
group of people is (somehow) forever blessed as the maintainers of the
information: others may start over.
Free information can, in this (limited)
sense, take on a life of its own. Perhaps it is best to say it is owned
by everyone--or else by no one, so that the notion of "ownership" does not apply. If that is correct, and if any particular group of maintainers is merely
"holding the information in trust," then they both as individuals and as a
group lack any moral grounds on which to restrict the use of the
information just to noncommercial purposes. They are merely the stewards
of the content, acting in the best interests of society, and since society's
interests certainly extend to commercial interests, it is incumbent upon them
to release the information under a license that permits commercial use.
first glance, this
looks like a persuasive argument. I also think it gets at the main reason that some people get quite passionate about allowing
commercial use. In short, to disallow commercial use is to assert a sort
of authority that no one is in a position to assert, given the open, public, fluid nature of the
communities that create it.
Here is a reply: people can
collaboratively create content under any license they wish. If they wish
to use a license that forbids commercial use, then that is their right. If others wish to augment this base of knowledge further, they may do so
they agree to the same license. There should not be any moral
restrictions on the choice of license. You might think the collaborators
imprudent, but not immoral.
There is an interesting rebuttal to this
reply, though. The mere fact that people have voluntarily entered
into an agreement does not mean that whatever they agree to is right. For instance, the fact that it is possible to enter a suicide pact does not
remove all possible moral objections to suicide; if suicide is wrong, then a
suicide agreement is also wrong. The fact that people voluntarily
agree to forbid
commercial use does not necessarily make it right for them to forbid commercial
This last exchange turns on an interesting question. When an
original organizer or original group of participants exercises its rights in establishing any license under which the content of contributors is distributed,
can that exercise be morally criticized? That seems fairly obvious to me: sure. After all, it is possible to critique a decision morally
before a decision is even made in the first place. Why should actually making
an agreement magically immunize the agreement to all moral criticism? All that the establishment of a license does is make it clear that
participants accept a certain license if they participate; it doesn't mean the
original choice of a license was above reproach. So this reply seems to
But another reply is possible, namely, that the argument from social ownership
(once again) "proves too much." By the above reasoning, why shouldn't we say that such collaboratively-created information should be
released into the public domain? After all, if the ground for allowing
commercial use is that the information is "socially owned"--owned by everyone
or no one--how is that really different from saying that, morally speaking, it should
be regarded as being in the public domain? And if that is the proper
moral status of that information, why shouldn't that be its proper legal
More generally, the argument from social ownership strikes me as a non sequitur. It is surely true and
of great interest that collaboratively developed information is something for
which society as a whole may and perhaps should take responsibility.
(Indeed, we might anticipate laws that refine the legal status of
see below.) But it simply
does not follow from this interesting insight that there could be no valid
grounds on which society might wish to restrict certain kinds of use.
Does the "social ownership" of strongly collaborative content create
some moral problem about disallowing commercial use? I suspect the
answer is "no," because there could be a reason for disallowing commercial use
that actually flows from the fact that the content is socially owned. What if, for whatever economic or social reasons, to generate the largest
possible fund of academic or scientific content, it is actually advantageous
to choose a noncommercial license? We cannot simply rule this
possibility out a priori. It could actually be true of some kinds of
content (such as scientific data) and some communities (such as academic
communities). Perhaps the Citizendium will have a larger or better
fund of content if we choose a noncommercial license. Open source
ideologues might find
this implausible, but the world is a very big and surprising place, and it
often upsets our preconceived notions.
Just as with the moral argument for a
noncommercial license, I find these moral arguments for a commercial license to be interesting but ultimately,
taken by themselves, unpersuasive. If
we want to find good reasons either for or against a noncommercial license, we
must look to the advantages and disadvantages of utilitarian arguments--not to
general, uncertain moral principles.
Maximum reuse is a good thing. Perhaps the strongest argument
on this side is simple. A commercial license would permit maximize reuse of
Citizendium content. Access to our content is (or will be)
presumably a good thing, because it spreads knowledge; therefore, doing more
of that directly furthers our purpose, i.e., to provide easily
accessible and high quality content to the world.
There is a variation on this argument worth pointing
out, as well. If, for whatever reason, the Citizendium fails or
does not do as good a job as it should, a commercial license would allow other
projects with compatible commercial licenses to move forward with our content. Someone might say, "But who cares about allowing commercial enterprises to
develop our content if we drop the ball? Some other noncommercial
enterprise could do so." But this is to misunderstand the point.
Many enterprises that develop open source and open content projects are
themselves noncommercial, but they use commercial licenses. We would
like our content to be as maximally reusable by those sorts of projects,
if we drop the ball.
But the incompatibility in this case goes both ways: content licensed so as to permit
commercial use cannot be relicensed by another project so as to
forbid commercial use, and vice-versa. Why not? Because the
licenses themselves are viral; use this content, use the license. And,
as annoying as reusers might find it,
the licenses probably should be viral. If a project wants to re-release some commercially
licensed content under a noncommercial license, doing that would restrict
the freedom permitted by the originator of the content. Similarly, if a
project wants to release some noncommercially licensed content under a
commercial license, doing that would permit more freedom than was
intended by the originators of the content. In either case, the wishes
of the originators of the content are not respected.
(It's worth pointing out, as an aside, that someone greatly impressed by the
argument from social ownership might insist that the wishes of the originators
of the content don't really matter. The very fact that information is
developed according to a certain, public, method means that the information
should be maximally free, period. But for reasons stated above, I don't
find this argument to be very compelling.)
So a commercial license, such as CC-by-sa, permits reuse by other projects and websites that use
commercial licenses. It does not permit reuse by projects that
licenses, such as CC-by-nc-sa. So why think this is "maximum reuse"?
Well, consider. It is true that commercial and noncommercial licenses
are mutually incompatible, and it's also true that information-building
projects that use such incompatible licenses cannot exchange information
(easily). Nonprofit enterprises can use both commercial and noncommercial licenses (they
just can't earn a profit); but for-profit enterprises cannot use content
generated using a noncommercial license. That's a significant disparity. Noncommercially licensed information will not be commercially distributed.
Of course, this is not quite right. As I said above, such information
could be used commercially if someone had the right to speak on
behalf of all the contributors to a noncommercial project, so that they could
make agreements with specific businesses. But the point remains that
there would certainly not be as much reuse of the information. Most profit-seeking individuals and small businesses, or reusers who just
don't want to go to the bother of making an agreement with the licensing
entity, will not reuse the content. This is well known and understood. It is precisely the ease with which information floats around
online--think open source software, GFDL-licensed Wikipedia content, and RSS
feeds--that makes a lot of the most impressive results of online collaboration
possible. The question is whether the Citizendium wishes to
partake in these larger "communities" that permit commercial reuse.
This would simply not be possible with a noncommercial license. And that is
a solid advantage of a commercial license, and simply one of the strongest
arguments anyone has about these issues.
Following the existing practice maximizes reuse. It didn't have to be
this way. If, from the beginning, free software, open content, and RSS
practices had restricted use to noncommercial reuses, the argument from
maximum reuse for a commercial license wouldn't be nearly as strong. Then there might now be many
massive communities online that would be only too happy to reuse and redevelop
information released under a noncommercial license. For better or worse,
that's not the case now. In the real world, the free information
movement welcomes and aggressively defends commercial reuse. Therefore,
a project's content cannot enjoy maximum reuse if it uses an
But shouldn't we change the practice
if it's wrong? With the requirement of real names and a place for
experts, the Citizendium already represents, arguably, a step beyond
the sometimes immature culture of most of the free information movement. Why
shouldn't we start a new and better practice, which forbids
uncompensated commercial reuse?
That seems reasonable, though it would be
difficult and very controversial. And it does not
diminish the advantage under discussion. Whatever you think of the free
information movement and its output--I for one regard it as one of the new
wonders of the world, whatever its flaws--there is no question that there
would be more use of Citizendium content if we were to use a
commercial license. That is, again, a solid point and it really cannot be
The difficulty of understanding what is
"noncommercial." Finally and briefly, it is worth prising out one
particular aspect of the argument from maximum reuse. Individuals as
well as organizations might not particularly want to profit from reusing the
Citizendium's content, and yet they might still be put off from reuse
because they are not sure whether their use is "noncommercial" or not. 'Noncommercial use' is defined as follows by the Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (by-nc-sa) license (section 4c):
You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You in Section 3 above
in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial
advantage or private monetary compensation. The exchange of the Work for
other copyrighted works by means of digital file-sharing or otherwise shall
not be considered to be intended for or directed toward commercial advantage
or private monetary compensation, provided there is no payment of any
monetary compensation in connection with the exchange of copyrighted works.
How are potential reusers to determine whether their reuse would be
"primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private
monetary compensation"? No doubt we can develop tests for
determining this. But that does not remove doubts on the part of
potential reusers--and that is the problem. The license language specifically permits
digital file-sharing, but that is only one sort of potential reuse. If
someone posts a copy of a Citizendium article to his blog, and he uses
Google ads (say), would his reuse of the article be "primarily
intended" to earn him money from the ads?
This, however, simply illustrates
a broader problem: it will be more of a hassle for everyone to reuse
Citizendium content if we permit only noncommercial uses. Insofar
as we want maximum redistribution of our content, we should use a
A reply: the Citizendium provides adequate
availability already. One reply to this argument, used in
discussions among our Citizens, is that our website,
citizendium.org, already supplies
adequate free availability. Isn't that enough? Why--goes this
reply--should we go out of our way to allow other sources to duplicate
On reflection, the answer to that question is obvious. While citizendium.org might always be available, not everyone knows that it
exists. More to the point, it requires both knowledge and time to
get from "wherever" a person is online to citizendium.org. If the goal
is to ensure that people benefit from the content of the Citizendium,
it is simply more efficient, generally speaking, to let people redistribute it
to as many other places online (and offline) as possible.
problem: paper copies. Moreover, one special problem about using a
noncommercial license is that many of the people who could most use
compilations of Citizendium content might not be able to access the
Internet at all. The Citizendium website does not provide
"adequate availability" to them. But they could use
cheaply-produced paper versions. It would be considerably more likely
that these important potential benefactors of the Citizendium's work
would receive copies if we were to use a commercial license. If only
noncommercial enterprises could reproduce our content, or if a commercial
enterprise had to pay a fee, that would cut down on the global impact of our
work across "the digital divide."
Though ironic, perhaps, the best
way to let our project benefit the world and its neediest seems to be to allow
capitalistic "exploitation." But then, this point is unlikely to be
surprising to anyone who has studied the economics of free markets.
There are some problems associated with article text within the Citizendium
being licensed under two distinct and incompatible licenses (the GFDL for the
Wikipedia-sourced articles and CC-by-nc-sa for our original articles).
As I was drafting this essay,
it was announced that Creative Commons, Wikipedia, and the Free Software
Foundation had come to agreement: the GFDL would be written so that those using it could upgrade to a new version
that would permit reusers to combine content with content licensed by CC-by-sa.
Moreover, Wikipedia would then upgrade to that new version. I believe this
means that those using GFDL-licensed Wikipedia content could relicense the
same content under CC-by-sa
if desired. In short, GFDL and CC-by-sa are now compatible. But the deal
hasn't been entirely concluded yet, as of this writing; the Wikipedia
community still needs to (somehow?) "approve" of the change.
both of those licenses are still incompatible with CC-by-nc-sa.
Incompatibility with Wikipedia. One might well see
incompatibility with Wikipedia's license to be a significant inconvenience, precisely
for Wikipedians wishing to use Citizendium content. This, of
course, might be one inconvenience that some of us may not care so much about.
See below for an elaboration.
Internal incompatibility. Our using a noncommercial license would
create incompatibility within the Citizendium's own article base. In other words, some articles would be licensed using the GFDL, and some
CC-by-nc-sa, and since those licenses are incompatible, the article content
couldn't be mixed. If we wished to combine articles using different
licenses, we simply couldn't.
There are some grounds on which to
call this into question (see the "digression" below).
Regardless, the Citizendium will proceed on the assumption that we
cannot combine text taken from incompatible licenses within the same article. (For one thing, it would be practically impossible to keep straight which
parts of an article are licensed under which license.) If we cannot mix
licenses for the text within the same article, that means that we must
declare that an article is either commercial or noncommercial.
That in turn is apt to cause all sorts of undesirable effects. Some
people, zealots for commercial licenses, might upload Wikipedia articles to
the Citizendium just to ensure that we use the "better" license. Others, zealots for noncommercial licenses, might recommend deleting Wikipedia
articles with prejudice, even those that have been improved significantly over
their source material. Divisive political battles
might result; but such battles would not occur if the Citizendium went
with CC-by-sa or the GFDL, which are compatible with Wikipedia.
A digression about a conceptual infelicity. I'd like to digress,
only slightly, to point out a conceptual infelicity here. According to
usual practice and dogma on Wikipedia, individuals license their own edits,
and the managing organization--the Wikimedia Foundation in this case--does not
do any licensing at all. It merely aggregates and releases a
whole body of content that, by a requirement it imposes on its contributors,
appears under the same license.
This becomes a conceptual problem for reusers, who obviously need to know what
the item is that is being licensed for reuse: the entire work, i.e.,
all of Wikipedia? Individual articles (which is what the Citizendium
and others widely assume)? Or individual edits? Bear in mind that,
according to the dogma, only individual edits can be licensed by
anyone. To say that articles can be individually licensed is to
assume that an article has an individual licensor. But that simply isn't
the case, unless it has a single contributor, which rarely happens.
Therefore, I do not know what is preventing the Citizendium from
saying, for example: the GFDL applies to this paragraph, which was
licensed by an individual for use on Wikipedia under the GFDL, but the rest of
the article is CC-by-nc-sa. If the reply is to say, "But that's not a
complete work," I answer: "Of course it is. The complete work is
whatever can be licensed under the GFDL. The only thing that
can be licensed under the GFDL are individual edits."
Still, with a wink and a nod, I suggest that the Citizendium ignore
this conceptual infelicity, and pretend that there is some good license-based
grounds for requiring that the text of whole articles be kept under the
same license. We are happy to mix text and other media under
multiple licenses, however. We are also happy to mix different licenses
throughout a whole
Reuse considerably more difficult. Having different articles
available under different licenses would require us to distinguish between two
sets of articles for purposes of creating downloadable, reusable data
ourselves, and would make reuse and publishing of our content more complex and
difficult. It is not clear whether anyone would want to reuse the
entire body of Citizendium articles: to do so would require that
reusers, too, employ incompatible licenses within their own database. Either they do that, or they download just the commercial articles
(sourced from Wikipedia) or just the noncommercial articles (original
to the Citizendium). It seems unlikely that anyone would do this, since
it would be entirely arbitrary which articles are commercial and which
In short, incompatible licenses would rather strongly discourage reuse of the
entire body of work.
Suffice it to say that using incompatible licenses for different sets of
Citizendium articles would pose some serious headaches. These
may not be show-stoppers, but they wouldn't be pleasant; and the pain could be
avoided simply by using a license compatible with Wikipedia's.
One of our goals is to distribute our content as broadly as
possible. Our choice of license will impact not only this goal, but also
the distinct goal of maximizing the amount of reliable content available. This is because the choice of license can impact the willingness of people to
In this section, I want to answer two questions:
- How can we expect different license choices to affect the motivation of
different groups of contributors?
- And so which license will maximize overall
The license poll of active contributors. To help understand
the impact of the license choice on contributor motivation, let me share
the results of the above-mentioned poll. On October 1, I circulated a
poll question to approximately 100 of the most prolific Citizendium
contributors of the previous three months (as determined by number of edits). I asked whether they would prefer that we use the GFDL, CC-by-sa, and CC-by-nc-sa.
There were 54 responses, and the breakdown was
(Thanks to Stephen Ewen for tabulating these results and for writing most
of the analysis of them that immediately follows.)
Totals = 54
GFDL = 7.25
CC-by-sa = 12.25
CC-by-nc-sa = 18.5
Other = 16 (and about 50 non-respondents)
Note this means there were 19.5 respondents in favor of a commercial use
license (GFDL or CC-by-sa) and 18.5 in favor of a noncommercial license.
Editors = 21
GFDL = .75+.50+.50 = 1.75
CC-by-sa = .25+.50+1+.25+1+.50 = 3.50
CC-by-nc-sa = 1+1+1+1+1+1+.75+1+1+1+1 = 10.75
Ambivalent / Either way is okay = 1+1+1+1 = 4
Ignorant = 1
Authors = 30
GFDL = .50+1+.50+1+.50+1 = 4.5
CC-by-sa = 1+.50+1+1+1+.50+.25+1+.50+1 = 7.75
CC-by-nc-sa = 1+1+1+1+.75+1+1+1 = 7.75
Ambivalent / Either way is okay = 1+1+1+1+1 = 5
I don't know = 1+1 = 2
Ignorant = 1+1 = 2
CZ must get this right = 1
Techs = 3
GFDL = 1
CC-by-sa = 1
I don't know = 1
The fractional numbers are meant to represent the opinions of people who
said "Either A or B," or "I'd prefer A but B would be OK." Each person's
opinion was weighted as 1 (total).
The respondents overall were not particularly sophisticated with licensing
issues. Moreover, the number of "Ambivalent / Either way is OK" suggests
licensing is not a principle factor in their choice to contribute. One casual
Wikipedia contributor, also casual on the Citizendium, commented, "I'm
not sure what number 1 [the GFDL] is." Alongside is a general realization
among these respondents that there are drawbacks/benefits either way. One
editor's comments perhaps best expressed these combined views, "Personally I
don't care, and would support a least worst decision, whatever that is."
Most who made longer comments argued primarily upon moral considerations for
non-commercial. One longer comment exception was pro-GFDL, arguing for
compatibility with Wikipedia.
Of the 21 editor respondents expressing a commercial or non-commercial
preference, around two to one preferred non-commercial. Those in the combined
ambivalent /either way, I don't know, and ignorant categories were about the
same as in the commercial category.
The 30 author respondents were a different story. The plurality were in the
combined ambivalent /either way, I don't know, and ignorant categories (10,
versus 7.75 for each of CC-by-sa and CC-by-nc-sa). Of those expressing a
preference, around 2/3 expressed commercial.
Of the 3 "techs" (programmers), 2 expressed commercial, divided between the CC and GFDL; 1
did not know which direction the Citizendium should take.
These numbers tell an interesting story. Editors as a group prefer a
noncommercial license, while authors as a group--a larger group
overall--prefer a commercial license, or what advocates call a "free" license. This reflects the Citizendium's effort to forge a "hybrid" project,
attractive to multiple communities. These numbers are not at all implausible, either, considering the lengthy discussions
that have happened on the Citizendium forums (see
and more generally
here). But note that the poll--and our rate of
non-response--makes it clear that most
Citizens do not feel as passionately as
many of the discussants in the forums.
An existential choice. Even if our contributors are not especially excited about the decision, the
striking division of opinion still indicates that a sort of existential choice
needs to be made. It is possible to represent this decision in a
misleadingly dramatic way, as follows.
"What sort of project do we want to be?" one side says. "Do we want
to ignore the opinions and attitudes of our most important contributors, which
make us a distinctive project -- our experts? Honest academics don't
work as slaves on behalf of industry, but are fair brokers of the truth. It is crucial that the Citizendium remain fully independent of
"Indeed, what sort of project do we want to be?" the other side says. "Do you want to be a closed, unfree project? The open source software
community has demonstrated the value of free licenses. This model has
been proven to be superior to the traditional academic one, which allows
'educational use only.' Freedom is our top priority."
Though I have no doubt that a few people will find themselves perfectly
represented by one side or the other, I have exaggerated and caricatured both
sides for effect, and I think the most appropriate attitude our Citizens
should have lies in between.
On the one hand, we aren't Expertpedia; we are the Citizendium. I
deliberately avoided a name that trumpeted expert involvement. Our
distinctive feature is that we are generally a more responsible
community with more reliable content, as unsexy as that might seem. We aren't just another academic
project. What academic projects invite open, general participation from
around the world in radically collaborative way? What academic projects
permit broad distribution and "share-alike" reworking of content? On
the other hand, we are also not your typical open source, Web 2.0, free
culture project. We have a role for experts; we use
our own real names and identities; and we reject the canards of "no
management" and "benevolent dictatorship" in favor of a constitutional,
From the beginning, the
Citizendium was billed as an effort to marry some good elements from
two unfortunately disparate communities. The approach the Citizendium
will take to our license question will, I hope, be a creative way to do
justice to much, if not all, of the underlying concerns both of academics and
of the free culture movement.
One might take the view that we should not
overestimate the potential negative reaction to our choosing any license. Among
the 100 active Citizens I asked to weigh in on the license, only 38 bothered
to offer a definite opinion, and these were pretty evenly divided between
commercial versus noncommercial--the edge, surely not statistically
significant, given slightly to the former. None of those (most active) Citizens
threatened, "I will leave if you don't choose the way I want," although later,
one or two people on each side did say this--none of them very active.
But this point does not go very far, because the most active Citizens have
been precisely those who are willing to participate without a clear license. It is possible that we
will gain more participants once we decide
one way or another, just because we've made the decision. I doubt this, but
it's possible. Indeed, if we get a fresh
infusion of contributors after announcing a license, that will probably be because of the
interest that accompanies the announcement. In any case, it's more important
examine what will maximize contributor motivation over the long haul.
Editors and academics. Most of our editors are academics, and
while academics usually favor a noncommercial, educational use only sort of
license, they do not seem to be especially animated by license issues
generally. Most of them do not seem to know or care much about what our
license is; for most, if we choose a commercial license, it won't make much of
Moreover, some significant number of the academics who are inclined to the
noncommercial side could change their minds, once they become fully acquainted
with the arguments for a noncommercial license. It is not hard to argue
that an "educational use only" sort of arrangement might have been appropriate
in the past, but the expansion of content creation projects outside of the
educational or academic sphere makes a more inclusive license possible. More generally, the arguments on the commercial side are at least as
compelling as on the noncommercial side, and we can expect many academics to
go where the arguments lead.
If there is a significant worry on this side, it is that large and
influential groups, such as professional organizations and major academic
presses, would refuse to get involved, on grounds that a license that permits
commercial reuse would reduce their rights or influence. Some
professional authors and publishers would not want to contribute to a work
that their competitors can simply take and reuse without compensation. Why should they get involved? What's in it for us?
But the professionals who ask "What's in it for us?" will not wish to get
involved in any case, and that is not just because the content can be
reused for commercial purposes, but because it can be reused at all,
and because indeed they aren't paid for their work. Academics do, of
course, do a lot of publishing work without monetary compensation, but this
mostly takes the form of peer-reviewed research publishing, for which they're
compensated in their careers. They are much more reluctant to write
general informational resources, such as reference materials and textbooks,
without compensation. If one removes both compensation and the
right of control, professional writers and publishers will simply not want to
get involved. But this is true whether we use CC-by-sa or CC-by-nc-sa. It's the
common elements, the "CC" (free) and the "sa" (ShareAlike) parts, that they object to.
It is worth pointing out that one moderately successful expert project, the
Encyclopedia of Earth,
actually uses CC-by-sa. But another more recent (and much better
funded) project, the Encyclopedia of Life, will
probably not permit reuse of some of its content at all; two more examples
of academic projects, the
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and
Scholarpedia, do not permit republishing without specific permission
I point this out not to call into question whether we should use an open
content license at all, but because our use of an open content license,
whether commercial or noncommercial, will put off most of the people who would
be put off by a commercial free license. In brief, the category
of academics perfectly comfortable with a free license but not comfortable with a
commercial free license is apt to be very small indeed--and far smaller
than the category of academics uncomfortable with free licenses, period. So if you want to be sure to snag the academic publishing traditionalists,
it's too late: the decision that puts them off, to use a free license, has
already been made.
I don't mean to dismiss entirely the fact, which seems obvious, that there
will be some academics who are put off by a commercial free license and who
would not be put off by a noncommercial free license. It's just that I
believe the number of academics who would be seriously disaffected by the
choice is very small.
The free culture crowd. With another group, matters are very
different. A far higher percentage of the "free culture" and "open
source software" (OSS or FOSS) crowds really care, and passionately so, about
licensing issues. There is a significant minority of potential Citizens
who would not dream of participating if we were to use a noncommercial
license. And if we were to use a commercial license, we would instantly
become much more attractive than we are now. Indeed, these people have
criticized us, sometimes bitterly, for not announcing a license choice in our
To be sure, among our most active contributors, there are not very many
free culture zealots, and it is quite possible that we will never have many. (I use the word "zealot" not because I disagree with them.
In fact, I do agree with them. I merely
dislike all kinds of zealotry--even in support of my own causes.) But
this crowd includes many influential commentators; indeed, the leaders of the
various open content projects are usually very strong supporters of open
content and free software, as are most of the people who write for Slashdot,
and many tech columnists. In short, among the Web 2.0 opinion-makers, free culture zealots loom large. They can influence our "brand" or public reputation, how we are reported on in
the technical press, and how many people are introduced to us.
It is worth pointing out that the Citizendium has already put off
some of the free culture crowd, for the simple reason that we have rejected
some of their usual policies; for example, we forbid anonymity, and we have a
role for experts in our system. Also, maybe more importantly, some
people hold up Wikipedia as the leading free culture success story, and they
think an alternative like Citizendium is neither necessary nor
desirable. For these reasons, it would be impossible for the
Citizendium to win over the free culture crowd entirely, not anytime soon,
and so it would be a waste of time to try. But the choice of a noncommercial
license would give this crowd a reason to positively demonize us. That
is, at least, a weak reason to choose a noncommercial license: quite
simply, good public relations.
Everyone else. I think probably the majority, or at least the
plurality, of our most active contributors are neither dyed-in-the-wool
academics wedded to "educational use only," nor dyed-in-the-wool free culture
zealots. This probably applies to most of our future contributors as
well. I have no clear idea of where most of them will fall on these
So, pressed to name which sort of license would maximize participation, I would
say a commercial license would help us, at least a little--not necessarily
But it isn't quite as simple as this. One caveat is that we might
have more well-informed, mature contributors if we were to choose a
noncommercial license--I say that only because we might gain a higher
concentration of older academics (the traditionalists). Yet I think the
advantage there is marginal at best. I suspect that the overall
activity of the wiki would increase over the short and medium term, which
would mean that there would be more academics, period, even if there were a
lower concentration of them.
Another caveat is that the dynamics of the decision might change over time. It might turn out, for example, that we become increasingly influential and
therefore attractive to academics to contribute to. As more and more
mainstream academics--meaning the "educational use only"
traditionalists--consider joining, there might well be increasing
dissatisfaction with the choice of a commercial license, and regret that we
did not earlier choose a noncommercial license. But after a few more
years, I think that academics will be introduced--dare I say indoctrinated?--into
the value system of the free culture and free software movements. This
has already happened with a number of Wikipedian academics and Citizens. So I don't think it is crucial that we as it were prepare the way for
a flood of
traditional academics by automatically opting for a noncommercial license. After all, it seems likely that much of the older generation of scholars will
never be interested in any such project. (I say this knowing full well
that a few of our most distinguished and active contributors are in fact
"very seasoned" professionals. They are delightful exceptions.)
In short, considerations of Citizen participation argue, weakly, in favor
of a commercial license.
For many, our relationship with Wikipedia is crucial to the license
decision. Some think that we should choose a license compatible with
Wikipedia's, so as to remain in the spirit of free exchange that is essential
to the notion of open content. Others think that we should choose a
license incompatible with Wikipedia's, to prevent Wikipedia from using
our content and to make sure that we clearly distinguish ourselves from the
The underlying question, which is worth examining separately,
is: what sort of relationship do we want to have with Wikipedia? Are we
competing or cooperating--or perhaps some of each? How?
We are not in business to put Wikipedia out of business. But we do
hope to outdo them in value--that is, in quality, quantity (in the
fullness of time), and in the maturity and responsibility of our community. So
we are naturally neutral competitors; while we might have criticisms of
Wikipedia, and while we might think those criticisms make the Citizendium
necessary as an alternative, such criticisms do not justify our aiming to shut
Wikipedia down. Here's another way to put it: the Citizendium is
an improvement on Wikipedia, but that does not mean that Wikipedia is useless. Speaking for myself,
I've always said that Wikipedia remains a
force for good in the world, whatever its flaws. On balance, I remain a fan of
the project I engineered. I merely think we can do better--and so we
should try. I suspect these sentiments are shared by a majority of
Given these sentiments, if we cooperate with Wikipedia, it should
be in our own interest to do so. This is because the competition with
Wikipedia includes, most importantly, competition for contributors. While I have long thought that Wikipedia and the Citizendium maintain
only slightly overlapping social niches, in fact, a majority of our active
participants are former Wikipedians, and there are some who straddle the
projects and some who would be Citizens but for the fact that we are not large
enough yet. Realistically speaking, though there will always be many
"die hards" in both communities--people who would never set foot in the other
communities--there is a fairly large number of people who might (and actually
do) work on either project, depending on circumstances. As the
Citizendium grows in size and viability, it is likely to win the
allegiance of more of these people. Therefore, how, i.e., what license scheme, is
likely to do win them over?
To answer this question, it is worth examining different
statements about how commercial and noncommercial licenses would affect our
relationship with Wikipedia.
Suppose that we chose a license permitting commercial use: either CC-by-sa
or GFDL. This would make it possible for Wikipedia to use original
Citizendium articles. What would be the consequences? Let's see.
Would Wikipedia swipe the Citizendium's
content and render our project pointless? Indeed, Jimmy Wales and others are
on the record
saying, in effect, that they don't mind that the Citizendium is
starting up; they'll simply take the best of our content and use the best of
our techniques, if they work. Some Citizens have been greatly concerned
about such talk. They detect a subtle implication that Wikipedia will
always be one step ahead of the Citizendium, because they will be able to
replicate the Citizendium's content and policies. And that will
render the newer project pointless.
Whatever anyone's intentions, there is
little to worry about here. Already, when the Citizendium
improves a Wikipedia article, Wikipedia can "borrow back" the Citizendium
changes. This has happened, and the world hasn't crashed around our heads. In fact, it doesn't seem to have mattered to anyone. As far as I can
tell, Wikipedia does not avail itself of our content very much, even when they
(already) have the opportunity. I have heard that something like 30-40% of our total
articles, including non-"live" articles,
got started on Wikipedia, and so they can
be "swiped back" by Wikipedia. To be sure, our words can already be seen on
Wikipedia--just not very prominently. That's fine with us.
But what about articles that the
Citizendium has, but that Wikipedia does not have? Unsurprisingly,
Wikipedians made a list of such articles. Last August, they
listed around 150 articles that they spotted in the Citizendium
that they didn't have at the time (and that they wanted). That might sound like a
lot of articles, until one realizes that that was only about 6% of the total
number of articles the Citizendium had at the time. If Wikipedia
were to host copies of all of those articles, would it make much difference to
us? Surely not.
The most important answer to the claim here, however,
is that Wikipedians are simply too proud to replace their articles with
ours. As long as our articles are--for whatever reason--significantly
different from Wikipedia's, the fact that Wikipedia can borrow from our
content poses exactly no threat to us.
On the other hand, the fact that Wikipedia can improve our content, and we
can improve theirs, turns out to be a classic win-win. If we see that
they've improved a paragraph, we can "steal" it. If they like a table we
wrote, they can steal that. Our articles will develop in parallel, and,
as experience so far seems to bear out, will grow more dissimilar than
similar. But we can still share content. I can imagine
"archaeological digs" of text, 50 or 100 years from now, when there
are perhaps not
two but twenty different significant encyclopedia projects, all exchanging
content. Future historians might ask, "Where did this precise sentence, which appears in five
different sources, originally come from?"
A reputation for being derivative? As some of my fellow
Citizens have suggested, it isn't the reality of being derivative of
Wikipedia that is a problem for the Citizendium, it is the
reputation. In other words, even if to any objective observer the
Citizendium remains importantly and obviously different from Wikipedia, we
might get the reputation for being derivative. It might be (wrongly)
believed that Wikipedia has all of
our virtues, because they have all of our content, when neither of these
ever be true. We could help avoid such misconceptions by using a distinct
license and forbid Wikipedia to reuse our original articles.
This seems true, as far as it goes. But we will always seem somewhat
derivative insofar as we borrow, and improve upon, Wikipedia's articles.
The question is whether a more vigorous exchange of articles and contributors
will make us always seem like an "also ran." The answer: of course not.
The differences in policy are clear and loudly trumpeted. As we grow,
the differences in the results will also be clear to see, if they
I think what many people fear is the following scenario: an article begins life on the
Citizendium, and is then imported into Wikipedia, where it is greatly
expanded. Citizens then always must play "catch up" with Wikipedia.
But this would make sense only if Wikipedia did not already have articles
about almost everything. That is why Wikipedia is not apt to borrow much of our
content, and when they do, then, just as when we borrow their
content, it will usually tend to drift in different directions. That's
how things will be, in fact; and general awareness of this fact will, sooner
or later, follow.
In short, the two projects will in fact always be different, and in
time they will grow only more different; and this fact will make contrary
reputations difficult to develop, especially over the long term. As to
the short term, well, no one who is deathly afraid of being misunderstood should ever do anything in
the public arena, because most of what one does will be misunderstood
by many people. That's not because people are malicious but because
communication is difficult. And that shouldn't stop anyone from taking risks.
A more vigorous exchange of contributors. There are a
huge number of mature, well-meaning, intelligent writers contributing to
Wikipedia. They are welcome to join the Citizendium, if they
like. Already, we've had some contributors to the Citizendium who have committed to
maintaining and developing articles that they started on Wikipedia for us. They are welcome to do so, as long as our copies really are moving in a
different direction: we don't want to be yet another mirror of Wikipedia.
There's little value that.
More relevantly to the current license decision: if
Wikipedians thought that content from articles they start for the
Citizendium could be moved to Wikipedia freely, they would be much more
likely to start new articles for us, i.e., they'd be more inclined to
give us a chance. As long as they can play by our rules, we'd be
delighted to have them. If they decided that the Citizendium was
not for them, they could always move their content to Wikipedia.
Greasing the wheels of contributor exchange in this way would likely be to the
benefit of the Citizendium. Our using a license compatible with
Wikipedia's would make Wikipedians more likely to join us, but would probably
not lead to much emigration in the opposite direction. This is not
just because work could be easily transferred back and forth between the
projects, but also because many Wikipedians would be more comfortable with a license
that, like Wikipedia's, permits commercial reuse.
Who should be the licensors? Before elaborating the
Citizendium's license scheme, I want to address one last issue. As
one distinguished Citizendium editor
suggested, if the license issue is as difficult as the above discussion
implies, then we should cover our bases and make sure that we can change
the license if we get the decision wrong. It would also be good to be
able to change the license if the community changes its mind, or if a better
license, for our purposes, comes along.
But there is no way to change the
license (even from the more-restrictive CC-by-nc-sa to the less-restrictive
CC-by-sa) unless there is a licensor that has the standing or authority to
make this decision. As long as we continue the Wikipedia practice of
viewing the individual licensors of our whole body of work as the individual
contributors, then there is no single licensor. Hence, there is no
practical way to improve on a license choice: the license can be made once
and for all, period. This, you might think, is a serious problem. Why think we
will make the right decision first?
Besides, arguably, we place reusers in a very
strange situation by saying that each contributor licenses his contribution
individually and no entity licenses the whole thing collectively. Who are the reusers dealing with? Some vague, shifting hydra? There are in fact as many
licenses as there are contributions? Perhaps this is a real, practical
problem for Wikipedia now. Can the Wikimedia Board speak for all the
millions of Wikipedia contributors? Even if there is a public discussion
later, who has the authority to assess the outcome of the discussion
and to make any decision about a change of
license? Quite frankly, the recent "decision" to make Wikipedia content
"compatible" with CC-by-sa strikes me as philosophically problematic: by
making this claim of compatibility, isn't the Wikimedia Board arrogating to
themselves an authority that they have never had, at least by long and
dogmatic proclamation by a large majority of Wikipedians? That's
certainly how I remember it, even since 2001 when we first started discussing
Therefore--one might argue, as the
aforementioned distinguished editor did--whatever else we do, we should
simply declare that the Citizendium has the right to change the license
in the future. We say that, of course, whatever license was used at time T1
continues to apply for the content released at time T1. But if we change the
license at time T2, then the content as it exists at that time is available
under T2 and not T1. We add that, of course, such decisions will not be made
in a secret proceeding, but only after a fair, rule-governed democratic
In short, it is absurd to think that our individual contributors are the
entities that license our content. It should be the Citizendium that
licenses the content.
This seems to be a strong argument,
until one considers a few facts.
First, unless we are willing to
take a very serious legal and political risk, we will never be able to relicense the material that comes to us from Wikipedia. The
Citizendium's options with the content that originated with Wikipedia is
dependent on Wikipedia's decisions (however arrived at). So the problem
the argument poses simply cannot be solved perfectly in any case.
Second, as we have seen, there is a very vocal minority that cares deeply
about the license issue. As I
elaborated above, any consideration of relicensing--particularly
relicensing from a noncommercial license to a commercial license--would be
particularly wrenching. In short, no matter how qualified, the license
decision articulated in this paper is going to set a precedent that would be
extremely difficult to change, even if the Citizendium Foundation were the
licensor and it could (had the standing to) make the change. This
does not refute the argument, but it does make the problem the argument poses
much less pressing: there is little need to secure the right to change the
license if we will probably not want to change the license.
There is, however, one purpose for which Citizens might to stand together and
speak with a unified voice, namely, if there are serious violations of our
license, over which we want to sue someone. This is something we may
want as a community to support, but,
as I say below, we can put
this decision off until later.
nature of open content. The above exchange indicates
something deeply interesting and important about the nature of open content. Collaborative content communities are made up of individuals that want the
benefits of combining their labor with other people, but who want to retain as
much control and freedom for themselves as possible. An open content
license is their guarantee that they will be able to enjoy the benefits of
their labor--that no one will be able to steal collective products out from
under the producers. It is a key element of a sort of social contract
that binds people together who want to work on a particular project. But
once this social contract is created, there is no way to change it short of
giving a single sovereign entity, in Hobbes' terms a leviathan,
the authority to speak for the whole. It is, again, the nature of open
content communities to leave as much control as possible in the hands of the
contributors and not their organizers; that open and bottom-up nature is what
makes such communities so productive, after all.
Some such fundamental principles might
explain why we find ourselves in this situation--where we would like to be
able to change the license, but we can't. Ultimately, it's because
changing the license requires that an entity different than each of us,
individually, enters in the social contract, so that we are no longer an
relevant party to it, at least when it comes to the legal defense of our
work. But then there is a special coordination problem: it is
impossible to get a large body of people all to agree to a change.
This is a nice theory, I suppose, but it sounds like a "just-so story" to me. I think that a group of people probably could be justified in changing
their license, even over the objections of a few. And I doubt this would
necessarily entail the creation of a Hobbesian leviathan that would remove
of the people."
I just don't see a legal model of making a license change
without in effect making the distributor of the content
into a licensor as well. That is the power that, for
example, I think the Wikimedia Foundation has, rightly or wrongly, had to take upon
There are, I think, only two ways to allow future online
collaborative communities to have the right to change their licenses. First, they (in effect) empower their organizers to make these decisions, or,
second, they change the whole legal paradigm associated with collaborative
open content communities. Practically, I think this would require
federal legislation and, possibly, international treaties. In time, I
think this might happen. As I have recently
argued in a
speech, I believe that cyber-polities are a new sort of entity in our
society. They have unique features and unique needs, and the legal
paradigm of "licenses" is woefully inadequate to answer to these features and
needs. I suspect--without having perfectly well-developed ideas on the
subject--that governments should recognize a new kind of organization, and set
up some absolute bare minimum legal ground rules for them. Among other things,
such rules would allow society to recognize that an online organization has,
in fact, changed its license; they might also allow certain online
organizations new categories of tax-exempt status; they might settle a way to
create legal proxies for such organizations, if they are needed; and they
might create a legal framework for "revolution," i.e., in which contributors
depose their leaders, and society can recognize that this is legitimate.
(Suppose a Web project's managers were all arrested and thrown into prison. Shouldn't there be a process to put the control of the
domain name and servers in the hands of the community--somehow?)
event, I may be bold in many
ways, but I am not bold enough to claim for the Citizendium Foundation the right to change the Citizendium's
license. To make such a claim would be simply too daring even for my blood. As
far as the community is concerned, we will have to wait for some
such new legal paradigm as described above.
Without further ado, here are the details of our licensing scheme.
The Citizendium adopts CC-by-sa
as the license for our own original collaborative content. This means
(among other things) that, if you start a new article for the
Citizendium, "from scratch," then when you press the "Save page"
button, you agree irrevocably to license your text
using CC-by-sa. I say "our own original" to exclude articles that
originated elsewhere (usually Wikipedia), and I say
"collaborative content" to exclude such possible non-collaborative features as
The Citizendium will continue to use the
GFDL for articles that
originated with Wikipedia, at least until such time as Wikipedia has
credibly announced that we may relicense such material under CC-by-sa.
We use a variety of other licenses, in
addition, for our non-text media.
(2) Reproducing Citizendium content elsewhere
As to articles that originated with the Citizendium, you are free both
to reproduce and to further develop them as long as you link from your copy
back to the original Citizendium article, and do so reasonably prominently (no hidden or
tiny print). You must also link to a copy of the CC-by-sa
As to Citizendium articles that originated on Wikipedia, we expect
Wikipedians to credit and link to the relevant Citizendium article if
they wish to use content that the Citizendium contributed
to those articles. If you are a third party site, you must credit
both Wikipedia and the Citizendium for these articles, and note that the
applicable license is (again, for now) GFDL, not CC-by-sa.
As to images and other media, and signed articles, consult the license
information for the media or article. There are many
CC and GFDL) in
collection, of course, but you may not simply host
In general, you can most easily and safely reproduce the text of our
collaborative encyclopedia articles, and all other text content that we have
developed collaboratively (which is all of the text of our collaborative
encyclopedia articles, and the vast majority of the text on subpages).
(3) Implications for using Wikipedia articles in the Citizendium
Bear in mind that someone who is the only author of some text that is
used by Wikipedia in effect relicenses his or her
contributions under CC-by-sa, if he or she does not check the "Content is from
Wikipedia?" checkbox. Many Citizens have already uploaded their
solely-created content without giving credit to Wikipedia. But note that if, in "your" Wikipedia article, even a very small edit was made by another Wikipedian, however, we must give
Wikipedia credit and use the GFDL for that article. Unless you produce a
version of the article that is entirely your own work, you personally
lack the standing to remove the Wikipedia credit and license.
Bear also in mind that
we allow people to upload images and some other media under any legal
arrangement that permits free access. The most restrictive such
arrangement is that you simply give us a permanent right to use your media on
the website and any future Foundation publishing projects (which will, of
course, be nonprofit); but otherwise you retain all copyrights.
Of course, all of our content can be found and downloaded using any
standard Web browser.
For computer programmers who wish to download our
content all at once, we have prepared a "database
dump" that we will be updating regularly, consistent with usual
practice. Non-technical people will find these files useless.
(5) An expectation of support from large reusers
A significant portion of the Citizendium's contributors are not
comfortable with the idea that their work might be "exploited" by
"profiteers," with no compensation being given to themselves individually or
even to the Citizendium Foundation.
Therefore, the Citizendium Foundation
advances the proposition that those who succeed in making significant profits from reuse
of the Citizendium's content are morally--not legally--obligated to
share some nontrivial portion of those profits with the project. In
other words, while we ask that you share any profits with the project, this
remains a well-grounded request and not a requirement.
Of course, we
understand that most commercial concerns "know what side their bread is
buttered on," and would naturally voluntarily share some of their profits
with a charitable enterprise that makes those profits possible, without our
asking them to do so.
(6) An option to legally represent
We may in the future take up the issue whether the Citizendium Foundation
should represent the Citizens who have contributed content, in case we would
like to sue for violation of our license. Such a lawsuit could be a
class action suit. For now, we are setting this issue aside.
About choosing the license. Let me explain the grounds on
which this decision rests, and in so doing, summarize the arguments
given in this paper.
I said in the beginning that our
highest goal is to provide large amounts of easily accessible and high quality content to the
world, and that our main means to this end is to motivate contributors. The other matters are important, but in my experience, really motivated
contributors are both a necessary and a sufficient condition for a successful
collaborative project. If there aren't enough motivated contributors, nothing else
matters: the project will not survive. But if there are many, then nearly
any problem is potentially solvable. That is, I think, the position that the Citizendium
finds itself in: we have a lot of motivated contributors, but also a lot of problems to
solve; yet I am confident that we will be able to solve them together.
the really important task that impinges on the choice of license is, as I see
it, motivating contributors. But there are some other considerations, as we
will see from a review of the arguments.
Some might question my
authority to make this decision single-handedly; but in that case, I would
point to the fact that, when last fall 100 of our most active contributors
were polled, there was slightly more support (19.5 of the votes counted) for a
commercial license than for a noncommercial license (18.5). It is
gratifying that the decision I came to is consistent with the (slight) majority
opinion. The fact that it was the majority opinion to support a commercial
license also supports the decision.
Why not the GFDL? Since Creative Commons, the Free Software
Foundation, and the Wikimedia Foundation
have come to an agreement that--they
say--will permit the compatibility of Wikipedia's articles with articles
licensed using CC-by-sa, that removes any possible reason we might have for
using the GFDL. The GFDL simply was not written for projects like wiki
encyclopedias, and while it might have been the best license choice when I
recommended it for Wikipedia back in 2001, it is now very far from the best choice
today. I might go into more depth about the drawbacks of the GFDL, but
others have rehearsed these ad nauseam.
An evaluation of the case
for a noncommercial license. Generally, I found the arguments for a
noncommercial license very interesting, but not ultimately more
compelling than the opposed arguments. The moral argument for a
noncommercial license finds something unfair about others profiting on the
backs of volunteers. But, upon examination, it became clear that the
situation is unfair only if a contributor has not given up the right to
compensation. But it is precisely by choosing a commercial license that
one might be said to give up the right to compensation. Therefore, it is
actually a subtly circular argument to say that a noncommercial license is
required by considerations of fairness: it is the choice of license that
determines what is fair or not. So the moral argument is not by itself
probative: it gains force only if independent reasons can be found in
favor of a noncommercial license.
This said, I personally find some force in
this moral argument. I might not have been able to articulate this force
very well, but I find my head nodding in agreement when people say, "It's just
wrong for corporations to be able to make tidy profits for their owners
or shareholders by using free content, without compensating the sources of
that content." But I think it has to do mainly with the size of
the operation. Generally, we might say that larger companies owe a
special moral debt to public projects that supply the means of their success, in the
same way that corporations are thought to have a moral obligation to support the
institutions of civil society. For this reason, I have added
section, above, that requests a portion of profits made from the use of
But why not make compensation a legal requirement?
After all, we might get a lot of money that way. One main reason not to make
compensation a legal requirement is
that it is simply not likely that anyone will earn very much money from the
Citizendium as long as it is available for free use by everyone. It
will be universally available, and charging for it would be like charging for
the air--and that is not a very plausible business model. In addition,
there is a very serious problem, namely, that charging a license fee to
commercial enterprises would require that the Citizendium both become a
licenser of the content (and so ask authors to share their copyright with the
Foundation) and that it adopt some democratic method of apportioning out the
largess. While neither of these is a fatal blow to the case for a
noncommercial license--they only puts the skids on the idea of license fees
charged by the Foundation to corporate reusers--they are very significant
disadvantages. We ought as much as possible to avoid upsetting our
contributors, as seeming to remove their individuals rights would do; and it
would be simply prudent not to transform the Citizendium into a nest of
political turmoil, as I think would likely happen if budget matters had to be
decided democratically. There are other problems as well. In sum, I think we can avoid potentially
significant problems, internal and external, if we renounce any authority to
charge a license fee for the commercial use of our content.
Besides, we are
apt to be supported by significant commercial reusers of our content, even if
we don't require such support. We can ask for support, too, and few
enterprises will refuse to support us, if they depend on us. Moreover, a
noncommercial license would make it harder for "the little guy"--small blogs
and websites and specialist wikis--to use our content. There is no harm, and
much to gain, from permitting such use, even when reusers are trying
to turn a small profit if only to pay for their expenses.
of the case for a commercial license. There are some relatively simplistic
arguments for a commercial license (e.g., from the definition of "free")
that I found not particularly persuasive, despite being common.
interesting is the argument from social ownership. The idea here is that
strongly collaborative content is not "owned" in any traditional sense,
because it is so easy to become a (legal) "co-owner" of a collaborative work,
and because such works are
tethered only in the most tenuous way to any specific individuals. Without saying exactly what we should make of "social ownership," we can at
least say that collaborative content is held in trust by an organization on
behalf of society at large. And since society has commercial
interests among others, there is no justification for forbidding commercial
use. This is because society at large--including those who might want to
use the content commercially--has a right to contribute and augment the
material. While interesting, this argument seems to "prove too much": if
it were correct, we ought to conclude that all collaborative projects should
be released into the public domain. Moreover, it is question-begging in
that it assumes it will always be in society's best interests to have the
freest possible license.
By far the strongest reason in favor of a
commercial license, I think, is the argument from maximum reuse. The
argument is simple. Most of the rest of the free culture movement uses a
commercial license, so this influential overarching community would be more likely
to spread our content if we used a commercial license. Moreover, the
total number of commercial enterprises that would use our content would surely
be higher if we allowed them to use our content without purchasing a license. Finally, the efficiency of access to Citizendium content, and the
probability of paper copies being placed in the hands of those without
Internet access, would both be increased if we use a commercial license. In
short, if we want to maximize the number of people who benefit from our content, a
commercial license is what we should choose.
Moreover, a commercial license
avoids some significant incompatibilities. If the problem were simply a
matter of explaining and understanding that the project has two different
licenses, that would be no problem. After all, we will have two
different licenses, namely, the GFDL and CC-by-sa, at least until Wikipedia
finalizes its compatibility decision. The problem is that different
articles would be licensed using two incompatible licenses, one
commercial and the other noncommercial. This makes different
Citizendium articles themselves mutually incompatible, which is annoying
(at least). It would also make it much less likely that anyone would
ever reproduce the entire database of Citizendium articles, preventing
maximum reuse (and hence our impact on the world).
You might say, by the
way, that we can get rid of these incompatibility problems by not using
Wikipedia's articles at all. Why not just delete them all? As tempting
as that might sound at times, we've already made the decision to
permit their use, and that is an issue we really cannot change at this point.
There were also two issues that go to evaluating the impact of the different
licenses on levels of participation. The first may be boiled down to this:
while academics in general do not especially know or care about
the difference between commercial and noncommercial free licenses, the free
culture crowd, which makes up another large constituency, cares deeply and
passionately about the difference. We will probably have more
disaffected contributors if we choose a noncommercial license than if we
choose a commercial one. The second issue concerns the impact of the
license on our relationship with Wikipedia; and, in sum, it seems likely that
our choosing a commercial license would lead to a more vigorous exchange of
contributors between Wikipedia and the Citizendium, something that
could help us considerably. There is no good reason to think it will
A global assessment. On first glance, the
case for a noncommercial license seemed to me, as it seemed to many Citizens,
very strong. But on careful examination, the reasons for
a noncommercial license are uncertain, and some objections to a scheme of
license fees are very worrying. By contrast, there are several strong
arguments for a commercial license, and adoption of a license compatible with
Wikipedia and other open content projects would solve some additional problems
that a noncommercial license would impose.
It is also worth looking again at our goals and highest priorities, as
explained in the first part of the essay. The arguments above indicate
that a commercial license will directly contribute to our top goal, namely,
giving the broadest access to vast amounts of high-quality reference content,
by removing the legal impediments to free distribution. If the most
important means to this goal is motivated contributors, a commercial license
is again recommended, because such a license will be attractive to the free
culture community and in other respects will help build robust participation. The other arguments are interesting, but not as
important as these, which concern the fundamental conditions of our success.
The proper evaluation of all these
arguments is far from obvious, but in my judgment, it falls decidedly in favor
of a commercial license. That is why the Citizendium has adopted
CC-by-sa as the license for its own collaborative content.
Apology. I sincerely regret the amount of time it took to
produce this essay--I worked on it nearly every day for a month, long after my
self-imposed deadline of November 15. Not until it was mostly written did I commit to a
position; I wanted to go where I felt the arguments themselves leading. In the process, I have taught myself something very important. I
hope the length and attention to detail given here will have taught some
readers the same thing. Namely, the issues behind the decision between a
commercial and a noncommercial license are extremely complex, and more complex than
some people realize, that is, people who tend to view this
as a black-and-white issue. Decent, well-meaning, intelligent people can
disagree about this issue. And given its complexity, I
cannot possibly pretend to have the last word on it.
I can speak for the Citizendium when it comes to what our license
and license procedure are (as explained above). But as to the arguments for
the license, I have made extensive efforts to solicit and understand the views of a
large variety of Citizens, and also of people outside of the Citizendium,
and this essay is a collaborative effort to a great extent. Still,
I cannot pretend to be speaking on behalf of anyone but myself in my
presentation of the issues, and only I can take the blame for the mistakes in
this analysis. I hope only to have presented the most
important arguments, in their most compelling versions--although that is
itself ambitious, and I doubt I have really done so.
Thanks. I have borrowed many arguments from
Citizens. If you spot any brilliant arguments here, they might well be someone
Most of all, I would like to thank the members of the Ad Hoc Licensing
Committee, to which I sent drafts of this essay and whose members provided
much invaluable insight. They include Aleta Curry, Stephen
Ewen, Mike Johnson, Jitse Niesen, Zachary Pruckowski, and Aleksander Stos.
Just to be clear: they do not all agree with me. I deliberately chose people who are active in the project, who
about it, and who wrote very interesting essays (or private comments) on the
issue. They also happened to represent an excellent cross-section of
Most of the Ad Hoc Licensing Committee wrote
response to a call for comments. I would also like to thank Anthony
Argyriou, Utkarshraj Atmaram, Tom Kelly, Robert King, Joe Quick, Andrew Su,
and Peter Tretter for their helpful essays.
In addition, I would like to thank people who offered valuable comments on the
Citizendium Forums, including: Martin Baldwin-Edwards, Anthony DiPierro, David
Goodman, Derek Harkness,
Carl Hewitt, Matt Innis, Pat Palmer, Richard Jensen, Mark Jones, Russell D.
Jones, Tom Kelly, Per Lind, James F. Perry, Hayford Peirce, Geoffrey Plourde,
Nereo Preto, Joe Quick, Warren Schudy, Anthony Sebastian, and Morten Juhl-Johansen
Zölde-Fejér. Thanks also to some others, who commented on the
Citizendium Blog, especially David Gerard and
Eugene van der Pijll, but others as well.
Finally, thanks to the members of the
Citizendium Executive Committee,
who also weighed in and reviewed this document before it was released.
This essay is free to reproduce for noncommercial purposes. I hereby
release the copyright over this essay to the Citizendium
Foundation, and speaking on behalf of the Foundation, I hereby license the
essay under the
CC-by-nc-nd 3.0 Unported license. (For the license of the
see above.) This means you can reproduce it in
any medium if you
give me (and the Citizendium Foundation) credit, you don't use it for
commercial purposes, and you don't make derivative versions of it. This
doesn't mean that we won't give separate permission to reprint it (or parts of
it) for profit, or that we'll refuse to let you release a derivative version
of your own--it's just that you'll have to ask our permission.