Wikimedia and GFDL 1.3

I spent more time than I would like to admit massaging the process that ultimately led to the release of the the GNU Free Documentation License 1.3 (GFDL) by the Free Software Foundation (FSF). Hours counted, it was probably one of my biggest personal projects this year.

The effect is to allow wikis under the GFDL to migrate to the Creative Commons BY-SA license or, as Wikimedia’s Erik Möller has proposed, to some sort of dual-license arrangement.

There are many reasons for this change but the most important is that the move reduces very real barriers to collaboration between wikis and free culture projects due to license compatibility. BY-SA has become the GPL of the free culture world and Wikimedia wikis were basically locked out from sharing with a larger community, and vice-versa; projects will no longer have to choose between sharing with Wikipedia and sharing with essentially everyone else. The GFDL has done a wonderful job of helping get Wikimedia projects to where they are today and Möller’s proposed switch seems, in my opinion, the best option to continue that work going forward.

The FSF gets a lot of credit (and a lot of flack) for what it does. Offering to "let go" of Wikipedia — without question the crown jewel of the free culture world — represents a real relinquishing of a type of political control and power for the FSF. Doing so was not done lightly. But giving communities the choice to increase compatibility and collaboration by switching to a fundamentally similar license was and is, in my opinion, the right thing to do.

Everyone who has worked hard to make this happen deserves the free culture movement’s thanks. This list includes Richard Stallman, Brett Smith and Peter Brown of the FSF; James Vasile and Eben Moglen of the SFLC; Erik Möller, Mike Godwin and Shunling Chen of the Wikimedia Foundation.

The FSF in general, and RMS in particular, deserves a huge amount of credit for what it has decided to not do in this case and for giving up control in a way that was responsible and accountable to its principles and to GFDL authors and in the interest of free culture movement more generally. It has not been easy or quick. If you support or appreciate work like this, please support the FSF and express this while doing so. Doing so is an important way to support these essential and almost inherently underappreciated efforts.

11 thoughts on “Wikimedia and GFDL 1.3”

  1. This is a brilliant move and all credit to the FSF.

    I hope that Wikimedia doesn’t waste this opportunity by adopting a dual-licencing cludge. I don’t understand their reasons for wanting to. This is the time to move to BY-SA, not to create an ongoing problem with derivatives being placed under only one of the two licences.

  2. Read the proposal more carefully Rob, and I think you’ll find that the dual licensing system is pretty harmless.

    It says that everything is under BY-SA and that external BY-SA works (and only external BY-SA works) can be merged in. That said, new content created for Wikipedia can also be used under GFDL if there is nothing merged in. The burdon for ensuring this is on the person using it.

    In other words, everything is BY-SA always but use in GFDL works is, where it doesn’t cause anyone to go out of their way, possible.

    This does more to ensure the wide use of Wikimedia works than any single licensing solutions could without incurring any cost on the contributors.

  3. I agree with you. A lot of people recently complain about the misuse of power which the FSF has supposedly been doing (which I think is absolutely wrong: sacrificing principles =! compromise), but this event really proves that the FSF believes in the greater goal of freedom, even if it means sacrificing its own power. Nice to hear your excellent analysis, kudos to you!

    Originally when I saw the license update, I though this is a big change forced upon people who use the “or any later version” phrase, but then I realized it was cleverly crafted as the best possible solution for free culture as a whole.

    Note: I also happen do be an FSF associate member, so there’s bias there, but there was a reason I decided to support the FSF in the first place.

  4. Anonymous: Many contributors to and hosts of wikis made a strong case that the GFDL had, with time, become illsuited to their projects compared to BY-SA. Many authors of GFDL manuals have made exactly the opposite argument.

    GFDL and BY-SA are still different licenses. For wikis, the differences are very small. For other works (like manuals) the licenses still differ in important ways. As a result, compatibility in a way that respects the desire of licensees is harder.

    GFDL 1.3 solved the easiest and least controversial case.

  5. Thank you!

    Aside from being able to share more widely – wonderful! – we want to encourage people to print out Appropedia pages, whether on how to build a water filter or solar cooker, or education materials for green living, or hygiene programs. Once we transition, we won’t have to worry about the need to print the whole license.

    Now to get a good wiki page going to explain the details of transitioning and usage. There’s a good basic explanation at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gfdl#Compatibility_with_CC-BY-SA * but where’s the best place for more detailed content – the CC wiki?

    (*The anti-spam filter rejected this comment when I included a raw link to Wikipedia.)

  6. Many authors of GFDL manuals have made exactly the opposite argument.
    Seriously? We’re itching to get rid of it at GNOME; it has never served any reasonable needs we have and the outmoded language is an obstacle to a sane, modern documentation release process. We’d have loved to have benefited from this.

  7. Luis: Yes. Really. Mostly professional publishing houses who are very hesitant to change and don’t want the licenses for things they’ve paid for changing out from under them.

    I didn’t say uncontroversial. I said least controversial.

  8. I can’t believe I missed this.  But then again, I’ve been buried for the past two months.

    This is exciting.  Makes me feel pretty proud of the FSF again.

    /me looks up membership dues

  9. I’m wondering why attribution is being included in the conditions.  Why not share-alike without attribution, then a Wikimedia policy regarding sourcing of contributions?

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