Fundraising 2007/Why Give blog/Wikipedia and the Movement for Free Culture

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Wikimedia and the Free Culture Movement[edit]

By Benjamin Mako Hill

While communication technologies have created a world flush with knowledge, creativity, and communication, works of culture are more tightly controlled and restricted today than ever before. A rapidly expanding copyright regime makes the use, modification and distribution of almost all documented human expression the exclusive right of its creator. Copyright today is automatic, extensive, and lasts for more than a century. Our culture today, is owned.

To counter this trend, writers, scientists, musicians, artists, and others have joined together to call for access to knowledge and the creation of a social movement for free culture -- culture that is free as in freedom, if not necessarily as in price. In the short lifetime of the free culture project, Wikipedia has taken up a position as the most successful and important free cultural work. Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia, provide everyone working toward a free culture with an example of what success might look like, hints for how they might achieve it, and the inspiration to continue.

Your support of the Wikimedia Foundation during this year's donation drive does more than fund the foundation and its projects. It helps support and pave the way for the global movement for free culture that is already much larger than Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and wikis. The free culture movement, as Wikipedia demonstrates, offers a compelling vision of how we might improve the way we produce and consume information throughout our lives.

Free Culture[edit]

Under contemporary copyright laws, one can not legally copy an article for a friend, create a mash-up of a video, or sing Happy Birthday at a restaurant with asking for permission and, in most cases, paying for a license. Even more problematically, all most cultural works are copyrighted by default at the moment of creation; only by explicitly disclaiming rights can works be used, copied, or modified. Through copyright, access to the most important cultural and scholarly resources are barred by tolls and restrictions. Legal access to most knowledge and culture is expensive -- and prohibitively expensive for many. The creation of transformative or derivative works -- like sampling and "mash-ups" -- is frequently prohibited altogether.

Outraged by this situation, creators and consumers of culture have demanded increased freedom to distribute and modify creative goods as part of the free culture movement. While some leaders of the movement have resisted the statement of explicit goals, they have consistently positioned free culture in opposition to "high protectionist" approaches to copyright and intellectual property. Music, art, knowledge, and culture, free culture activists argue, should be widely accessible, flexible in the terms and restrictions placed on its use redistribution, and modification.

In part, the free culture movement is constituted by Utopians who imagine, describe, and espouse a world of what they feel is truly free culture. For these Utopians, free culture is a glimpse of ideal world where knowledge can be used, studied, modified, built upon, distributed, and shared without restriction. It is a world where creators are fairly and universally respected, attributed, and compensated. The major problem faced by free culture Utopians is that, in many cases, they do not know to move from contemporary cultural-economies based on copyright, ownership, control, and permission-asking to their ideal world.

Feeling that Utopianism is impractical, free culture's pragmatists argue that it's better to settle for the best that we can get by reforming the current copyright system and making incremental improvements. In particular, pragmatists argue that Utopian idealism eliminates the exclusivity on commercialization that helps support the production of many creative works. Better, they say, to settle for non-commercial use or verbatim copying than copyright's default of "all rights reserved."

The free culture movement, in this sense, is torn between the desire to create a world of truly free knowledge and the sense that in, for that knowledge, they have eliminated all viable financial and social systems to sustain creation of these works. The pragmatists compromise on a Utopian vision of a free world while the Utopians espouse what appears to many to be unrealistic.


Wikimedia[edit]

Wikimedia is a Utopian free culture project. Its goal is not only to collect knowledge; its goal is to do so freely. Wikipedia was created before it was clear that a free encyclopedia could or would succeed or that it would be better than the existing proprietary alternatives. Its goal was to be free, open, and unrestricted. Ironically, this idealistic commitment drove the creation of alternatives and redefined what was possible and realistic. In the free culture space, nothing demonstrates this better than Wikipedia. Nothing gives free culture's Utopians as much hope.

Wikimedia is important simply in that it exists and in that is existing freely. As one of the most visited websites in existence, Wikipedia is an inevitable destination for any web searcher or surfer. It is a frequent response to the questions and curiosity of millions. But it is not just ubiquitous; it is better. It is no longer particularly controversial to suggest that Wikipedia is the single most impressive reference work ever compiled. It is one of the most important extant culture works in the world. And it is also free.

Early this year, the Wikimedia Foundation Board made an explicit commitment to a strong articulation of free culture goals. Through their resolution, the Wikimedia Foundation board made clear what was obvious to those involved in the project: Wikipedia has succeeded not in spite of the fact that the encyclopedia is free but because the encyclopedia is free. Wikimedia projects are valuable precisely because they have torn down barriers to contribution, use, and reuse.

Equally important for the free culture movement, Wikimedia has set an example and painted a picture of how a free culture might be achieved. In large part because of Wikimedia, wikis -- once a marginal tool used by a small group of geeks -- are a core technology in the production of free culture on thousands of wikis on myriad subjects. The technologies, social models, communication structures, and decision-making policies, procedures, and systems each provide inspiration and instructions for others in the broader free culture community. In each of these areas, Wikimedia projects provides a set of innovative models and practices that are compelling, successful and well documented.

Donating to Wikimedia Foundation[edit]

While Wikipedia is free to use and is written without direct compensation to the vast majority of contributors, running Wikipedia is not without costs. Wikipedia is free as in speech, but not free as in beer -- at least not for the Wikimedia Foundation. Financial support is necessary to power servers, sustain essential technological development, fend off legal threats, and ensure a healthy and productive community. This essential work is paid for by donations to the Wikimedia Foundation.

And yet, while these donations are targeted toward the support of Wikimedia and its member projects, their impact in the free culture movement is much larger and more important. As the visible symbol of free culture to the vast multitude of people who have never heard the term, Wikimedia is intimately tied up in free culture's success. Wikipedia provides not only an example of how free culture is possible, it demonstrates how it can be done. It also shows that free culture -- truly free culture -- is better than the proprietary alternatives. Wikipedia has already paved the way for the success of hundreds of free culture projects. Its success in its struggles, including this fundraising drive, will help or hurt the immediate prospects of the entire movement for free culture.

Please, join me in donating to the Wikimedia Foundation this year. The fate of a much more than Wikipedia is riding on our generosity.


Benjamin Mako Hill is an free software and free culture activist. He is an editor on English Wikipedia and Wikiversity and sits on the Wikimedia Foundation advisory board. He is an initiator of the Definition of Free Cultural Works and a director of the Free Software Foundation. By day, he works as a researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management and as a Fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media.