Cleverly disguised as the back-end “explanations” to their new photo-uploading process, The Wikimedia Commons has just taken a ballsy stance on copyright and created what may become the first true global repository of open content.
Through coming up with a coherent system of tagging and attributing photographs, they’ve had to arrange a Unified Theory of Copyright. (Copyright law tends to be anything but unified, so this is monumental.)
The effort that must have gone into ironing out the tangled mess of copyright laws, both nationally and internationally, is mind-boggling. HERE they’ve compiled an impressive list of what categories of works are in the public domain and why for over a hundred countries, and a list of all the licenses that are open enough to stack and still keep the content open.
In their own words:
“A copyright license is a formal permission stating who may use a copyrighted work and how they may use it. A license can only be granted by the copyright holder, which is usually the author (photographer, painter or similar).
All copyrighted material on Commons must be licensed under a free license that specifically and irrevocably allows anyone to use the material for any purpose; simply writing that “the material may be used freely by anyone” or similar isn’t sufficient. In particular, the license must meet the following conditions:
- Republication and distribution must be allowed.
- Publication of derivative work must be allowed.
- Commercial use of the work must be allowed.
- The license must be perpetual (non-expiring) and non-revocable.
- Acknowledgment of all authors/contributors of a work may be required.
- Publication of derivative work under the same license may be required.
- For digital distribution, use of open file formats free of digital restrictions management (DRM) may be required.
The following restrictions must not apply to the image or other media file:
- Use by Wikimedia only (the only non-free-licensed exceptions hosted here areWikimedia logos and other designs which are copyrighted by the Wikimedia Foundation).
- Noncommercial/Educational use only.
- Use under fair use only.
- Notification of the creator required, rather than requested, for all or for some uses.”
Wikimedia has illustrated some of the more difficult copyright concepts using comics:
Disentangling the thorny mass of copyright laws has required some positions to be taken on ambiguous legal rules. Concepts like fair use and “minimal standards of creativity” are kind of a mess.
For example, if a work isn’t creative at all, it’s not under copyright. This can happen to logos that are just popular symbols merged together, and pieces that are just taking stuff from the public domain. However, the case law has been unclear as to whether an relatively “noncreative” reproduction of a public domain work can, itself, be copyrighted. 
Wikimedia took this position:
While I applaud Wikimedia’s work and admire their gumption (as in, I am now a huge fan), I can’t help but wonder how a consensus vote of an ambiguous law would hold up in court. Copyright law is deeply flawed and, in many ways, internally inconsistant. By ironing it out Wikimedia has necessarily had to take a (well-informed) stance.
In closing: Hitler on copyright laws, particularly parodic (a fair use) due to his critique of the repression of this very movie clip after it became a viral meme:
- In Alfred Bell & Co. v. Catalda Fine Arts, Inc. (2nd Cir. 1951), Catalda didn’t have access to the original public domain works and instead made copies of Bell’s painstakingly accurate mezzotints. Catalda claimed they weren’t sufficiently original to get copyright protection, and the court disagreed. However, in the more recent case of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. (S.D.N.Y. 1999) the judge came to the opposite conclusion when he found that faithful reproductions – in this case, in the form of transparencies and digital photographs – were NOT copyrightable. Note – Bridgeman, while more recent, is a district court case and is not binding on any other courts.↵