Research:A brief history of Wikimedia Commons

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22:36, 4 May 2016 (UTC)
Duration:  2016-6 – 2017-12

This page is an incomplete draft of a research project.
Information is incomplete and is likely to change substantially before the project starts.

We will lay out a neutral history of Wikimedia Commons, identifying some key events and milestones. We want to identify interactions with legal jurisdictions, especially (1) copyright law, and also (2) trademark constraints, (3) restrictions on subject matter (e.g. matters of decency) and (4) format. (e.g. use of .png, .svg,, .pdf, JSON, and other formats). To the extent possible we want to characterize how hard it is to manage, and identify areas of major past conflict.

Wikimedia logo mosaic created to commemorate the one millionth file at Wikimedia Commons in 2006


Sources will probably be mainly from online wikis. We can also use Quarry for some data downloads, and interview some of the actors.

Quantitatively we can characterize the size of Commons over time, at least since the current site launched in 2004. We may be able to identify the number of contributors or admins at various points.

We'll review the past literature, books, journal articles, and primary sources like the Signpost and interviews.


  • user counts? admin counts? admin criteria? participation by country / file type?


Here's a timeline with expectations, milestones, and deliverables for this project:

  • May 2016: Draft of project research outline and timeline; invitation to collaborators is out Green tickY
  • May-Sep 2016: Literature reviews, data collection, interviews, analysis Red XN
Presentations at the following conferences

Policy, Ethics and Human Subjects Research[edit]

  • We do not need IRB approval in the near term, and will use public data for now. We do not expect to conduct a broad survey nor disrupt the work of others. We may request data from the WMF or other established institutions.

Drafts and submissions[edit]

Submitted to the IASC conference to be held Oct 20-22, 2016. Their subject is the institutional and legal concept of commons, and implementations, often built around the work of Elinor Ostrom.
Commons Growth, Michael F. Schönitzer and User:Kopiersperre, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wikimedia Commons is a web site that holds images and other media files for use in Wikipedia sites in any language. The site's design and rules allow uploading only of materials whose copyright status allows free reuse by anyone for any reason. This principle is enforced.

The site launched in 2004 and grew to have a million files in two years. It now holds 37 million items, including images of historical texts for transcription, and documentation in many languages. The Wikimedia Commons thus makes a cultural commons real, practical, and global.

This work describes how this repository began, evolved, offered new services, and grew. Its creators and administrators have debated issues including copyrights, fair use, what can be uploaded, matters of decency, file size, file format, categorization, and the definition and identities of users.

Design / methodology / approach

The main source of information is the primary source: the Commons site is a wiki which keeps past versions of pages, including discussions of its administrative policies and technical decisions back to its beginning. Each of its 243 administrators has a page, and there are pages for each past nomination of a potential administrator and the public support or opposition of other users.[1] We shall interview administrators of the site.


The site is stable and has succeeded at its intended mission. Its contents are mostly photos and include also audio, video, historical texts, and scalable diagrams. Partnerships with cultural institutions have vastly expanded content and kept it organized. Museums, galleries, archives, and libraries upload materials to the Wikimedia Commons. This helps those institutions meet their mission, be visible to a global public, and indexes their materials in a searchable global category system.

The core site is run and developed by professionals at the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. Volunteers do most of the uploads and curation. Photo contests[2] and other special events add content in focused ways. Automated "bots" help manage the overwhelming clerical tasks.

Intellectual property guidelines, mainly, determine which materials are suitable to be stored on the Commons. U.S. law applies generally, but the U.S. "fair use" doctrine does not earn materials a place on Commons because fair use materials are not freely reusable in other jurisdictions. People all over now routinely use materials from Wikimedia Commons in writings and presentations because, as intended, it frees them from worries about copyrights. To this extent, the site has succeeded in helping make real a set of a "free" unobstructed digital cultural materials.

Originality / value for knowledge commons research

We do not know of a simple reliable cite-able history of the Wikimedia Commons, despite its importance. Therefore this work is simple and descriptive, not mainly theoretical. We believe that a timeline and accounting of the past development, issues, and conflicts regarding the Wikimedia Commons will be useful to analysts of online phenomena and to scholars of knowledge commons and intellectual property.


Hoped-for results: The legal literature on commons refers only rarely to Wikimedia Commons because the relevant scholars do not have clear historical references points, and do not all understand that Wikimedia Commons, a major site, even exists or what copyright issues it has confronted in fact. If they knew, they could integrate the experiences of Wikimedia Commons into more legal and analytical literature.


  1. c:Commons:Administrators
  2. Follow up WLM sources below