Wikimedia and the (political) meaning of free knowledge

02 Apr 2013 by Nikolas Becker on Open access

A comment by Nikolas Becker*

In Europe, education and free knowledge are subject to political restrictions that can only be effectively changed on the EU level. Wikimedia, the not-for-profit organisation behind the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, believes this. The organisation could therefore soon open an office in Brussels to participate in the future debates about a European knowledge society. Nikolas Becker is a member of the board of Wikimedia Germany. Using three concise examples, he explains why and where he sees need for action.

Would it not befit a promoter of education and knowledge more not to interfere with political opinion making; to restrain itself and take a neutral point of view, as it is stated in Wikipedia’s guiding principles? No! Because the freedom of education and the practice of collaborative writing, as revolutionised as they were by the Wiki-principle, are regularly called into question in the public sphere.

Free knowledge - but for money?

Pierre Lescure, former CEO of the French pay TV Canal+, recently made a proposal to the French government, to impose a fee on freely licensed content in the future since, he argued, this type of online content limits the development of commercial services. His proposal, which would hinder Wikipedia and free content alike, was to be extended to the European level.

Then, consider the international treaties, that are perpetuating an outdated copyright regime, which constrains the production of freely accessible knowledge. For example there is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was a controversial issue in the past year and de-facto failed after extensive discussions. Its “successor” the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Directive on the enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPRED2) are already on their way. All of these treaties are either negotiated jointly by the EU and another country or are designed as original EU legislation.

Understanding the implications of EU and international policy on the future internet, it seems clear that the defense of our concerns with national parliamentarians and governments can only be one side of the equation, at best. Voicing criticism of these agreements as early as possible, is highly important if one wants to enter into dialogue with European political decision makers. Thus, all European Wikimedia Chapters need to know when relevant legislative initiatives are set in motion. They have to be able to express their concerns and they also need to have the opportunity to manifest their own ideas about developments and improvements for a future knowledge society.

Ideas for a European knowledge society

Education and science are historically recognised cornerstones of peaceful partnerships and economic prosperity. Hence, beside the controversial Bologna reforms, Europe needs to take further steps towards the integration of education and science to its agenda, in order to metamorphose Europe from a Union that spends nearly 40 per cent of its future budget in the agrarian sector, into a modern knowledge-based society.

But where to start? Representative for a broad range of issues, ideas and unsolved questions, I will elaborate on three matters of contention where with minimal effort, I believe we could achieve a lot for education, science and democracy-strengthening journalism.

Open access to scientific research

Research findings are usually published in academic journals. Researchers or other individuals interested in those findings then have to pay a fee to a particular publisher or database host to access the article. Usually, university libraries pay an annual fee to cover the costs for their faculty, students and staff, which can easily be 16,000 Euro or more – albeit for a single journal. Interested individuals pay about 25 Euro per article.

One could assume, this is a legitimate model: So as novel writers do not give away their books for free, academic writers should earn money for their work, too. But this ignores two important differences between literature and academic writings:

  1. Academics do not earn any money with sold copies of their texts, and yet it is not rare that they have to pay several thousands of Euro to have their article published.
  2. The work of researchers is financed by their monthly income in advance and - this is the point of the matter - often from public tax funds.

Therefore, we are today in the strange situation where universities are paying to access the fruit from their own brains or that of those in colleges and other universities (likely also mainly publicly funded). The interested individual pays twice, too: Taxes for science and research and the fee to the publisher.

The debate around “open” access is not only about money. What’s also at stake, is how research findings can subsequently be used by other researchers. For instance, it would be possible to release all scholarly publications under free licenses, allowing on the same token to import graphs and diagrams into a new textbook - or to a Wikipedia article for that matter.

Finally, concrete economic considerations speak for open access to research findings. According to several studies - among them a report on behalf of the Bitish government - “Open Access” brings about innovative incentives for research and the economy.

Thus, under the umbrella term Open Access, several alternative publication models are being developed and tested, models that address the problem while preserving or even lifting academic quality. In Britain and Germany, relevant regulations are currently in preparation. However, they are still problematic for two reasons: Firstly, both draft laws do not include a provision for the the reuse of the material. Secondly, research nowadays mostly does not only happen in a national context. In most research areas, international exchange has become the norm. In short: Europe-wide solutions need to be found.

Open governmental and administrative data

48,431 images of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are being used by Wikimedia projects. There are illustrations of space vehicles, heavenly bodies, and geological finds. Even the famous Blue Marble image is freely accessible and archived in its own Wikipedia article.

On the contrary, not even a single image of the European Space Agency (ESA) is accessible through Wikimedia projects. Why is this so? This is where the second “open” keyword comes into play - that of open (governmental) data. In this case, “data” refers to all works and data compiled by public administration such as meteorological data, measurement of environmental pollution, or photographies by state employees... among them astronauts.

A substantial argument in favour of open data (i.e. the release of public works) is similar to the case made in the open access debate: The creation of data, images, texts, etc. by employees of an administration is usually paid for in advance by taxpayers. Thus, it is appropriate that they – whether individual, research institution, or commercial company – gain access to data and be guaranteed the right to use it. The main argument for strong copyright protection does not apply to governmental data: No (economic) stimulation is needed for creating them. With the EU-wide introduction of open data laws, an enormous collection of knowledge could be set free. That would benefit the whole community and serve as an incentive for innovation.

Freedom of panorama and copyright

Why can we not see a picture of the Brussels Atomium on Wikipedia? Why are we not allowed to print posters of the illuminated Eiffel Tower, but of the dome of the Berlin Reichstag building at night?

The reason for these inequalities in user rights are differences in national copyright regimes. With regards to publicly-visible buildings, German copyright legislation includes an exception called ‘freedom of panorama’. This exception allows you to take pictures of all buildings, even of those for which the architect still holds copyright, as long as the photographer stands on a publicly accessible street.

Such freedom of panorama is guaranteed to citizens of most EU countries, but not in Italy, Belgium or France.

This missing regulation has a negative impact not only on projects like Wikipedia, which cannot illustrate articles of high historical or cultural importance. Scientists and journalists are constrained in their work, as they are unable to publish certain pictures without the freedom of panorama. Thus, these rules have to be harmonised as soon as possible.

The examples show that further civil society engagement is strongly needed to respond to the upcoming challenges of a modern European knowledge society. With its broad support by thousands of authors and readers, Wikimedia combines a range of perspectives and is highly qualified to enrich the debate with its input, rooted in a culture of sharing and transparency. With its open approach, the wiki movement can make a strong contribution to the transparency of EU politics, while passing on European debates to a global audience.

* The author is a member of the board of Wikimedia Germany - Association for the promotion of free knowledge. The organisation with the long name is one of 38 national Wikimedia Chapters. The association supports volunteer authors and editors of Wikipedia and other free-knowledge projects, further develops the wiki software, informs about Wikipedia, and promotes free knowledge and open education.

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