User:Pfctdayelise/Wikimedia Commons: Why free content media matters

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New Year's Eve, a traditional time for celebration around the world, is fast approaching. Will your New Year's look like this?

What was the point of this short pictorial excursion? It was a whirlwind tour of Wikimedia Commons, the media-supplying child in the Wikimedia family. Where Wikipedia's trade is in encyclopedia articles and Wikibooks is in textbooks, Wikimedia Commons is devoted to free content photographs, diagrams, illustrations, animations, videos and audio. Multimedia resources are fast becoming the basic units of communication in our media-soaked world, where advertisements, entertainment and sheer data are beamed from every conceivable (and inconceivable) surface. I could have described the adventure above in a few paragraphs of text, but even then I'd be hard-pressed to compress the essence of the final photograph into the written word -- don't you think?

We understand that written literacy is important for allowing citizens to fully participate in society; allowing people to access and contribute to great written traditions is part of what is so valuable about Wikipedia's success. Media literacy is becoming just as vital. A single image can have a devastating effect on the most carefully-prepared statement that skirts around the truth. Or the image can tell the lie as the text simultaneously disclaims. Think of the impact of a political cartoon that skewers an issue instantly; or for the latter, consider an advertisement that promises sex appeal and fun times while the small print warns, "Smoking may cause lung cancer".

A written tradition is often about connecting people to their history, but increasingly our history is not being recorded in words on a page. Does the name Phan Thị Kim Phúc mean anything to you? Probably not. What if I showed you a black and white photograph of a little girl running down the road naked, screaming and crying? Probably you would recognise that photo, and instantly understand all of the issues it is short-hand for.

I can't show you that photograph. It dates to 8 June, 1972, and is short-hand for the influence of the media's reporting of the Vietnam War on the American public's opinion of and support for that war. From this example it is clear that the media plays an active role in democracy. Free press, free people.

But not free content. That photograph won't pass into the public domain until at least seventy years after the photographer's death, and that's only if the United States government doesn't extend the term of copyright yet again (you can find the details on Wikisource, but Lawrence Lessig's book Free Culture is a rather more readable introduction).

To see how quickly media is changing the landscape, compare the media available in Wikimedia Commons about the Vietnam War to that about 9/11. I'm certain that if I were to show a picture of a plane crashing into a building, everyone who reads this would understand what that stands for. I'm not going to include it because it doesn't have a place in this article. But one difference between that image and the Vietnam War one, is that I would be able to. Free content images of that event exist, purely because it happened in the last five years.

Social movement cyclists Critical Mass are fond of the saying, "We're not blocking traffic -- we are the traffic". There is a similar rallying cry behind citizen journalism -- "We are the media". And while the cyclists' refrain seems more hopeful than accurate, it's hard to deny the reality of participatory media today. YouTube videos can be front-page news. (Does the phrase "Don't tase me, bro!" mean anything to you?) Wikipedia edits can be spookily ahead of the news. Blogs are said to influence political campaigns. People make careers out of this internet media biz.

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Wikimedia Commons comes in here because it provides the basic building blocks for people who take part in media creation, commentary and criticism -- that is, anyone who wants to. If you need images, video or sound that you want to be able to use without fear of being nabbed for infringing someone else's copyright, then Wikimedia Commons is for you. And because it's a wiki, you're invited to give back, too.

Wikimedia Commons also takes existing free content or public domain collections and cannibalises the useful parts. By re-describing and re-cataloguing we essentially make these things that are already free, more accessible. After all, something that's free but very hard to find is not all that useful, is it? (Did you know that all works created by US federal government employees are automatically placed in the public domain? You might not know it, but Wikimedia Commons editors certainly do!)

I wrote this post to ask for your help. You may guess from my tone that I'm not happy about the length of copyright being (seemingly) continually extended. You're right; I'm not. I personally plan to fight it and argue against it whenever and wherever I can. That is a fight that I now understand the significance of; I now "get it" because I edit in Wikimedia Commons and see the gems that can be gleaned from the public domain, items whose copyright has expired and are now available for public use, a common good. But that's not why I ask for your help, because Wikimedia Commons does not do this fighting.

Wikimedia Commons is a project that merely collects media files that are in the public domain or are free content. That project doesn't have any position about what copyright laws should be, it only cares about what currently qualifies for inclusion. That project needs your help for very boring things: to pay for more servers, more bandwidth, and more software developers. Servers and bandwidth are obvious needs, I suppose. We have many 3MB images that are regularly used in dozens of Wikipedias, but there are not too many (if any!) Wikipedia text articles that are 3MB in size. We have to put a low cap of 20MB on uploaded files because we just aren't confident that we could handle an explosion in larger content (video files, for example, could regularly pass that limit). Media is inherently bandwidth-greedy.

As for the software developers: If you have a browse around Wikimedia Commons you might notice the interface is not that great. It's not shiny like...well...any Web 2.0 website. It may feel like the website is wearing hand-me-down shoes which don't quite fit right. That's true - the website uses the MediaWiki wiki engine designed for an encyclopedia. It still needs some more tinkering to adjust to the basic unit of Wikimedia Commons, which is a file (usually an image), not an article. And while MediaWiki is open source software which means anyone who has enough time and patience can contribute, it's enough of a complex beast that few do.

So, servers, bandwidth and software developers -- that's why I want to ask you to please dip into your pocket and donate for Wikimedia Commons. But from me personally, I hope a New Year's resolution may make its way into your mind, to resolve to fight against copyright expansion, enjoy the availability of the commons and give back to it, too. Happy New Year.

Image credits

  1. "Godt Nytår 2004" © Hansjorn, licensed under the GFDL.
  2. "Charminar in all its glory at night" © Joe Zachs, licensed under CC-BY.
  3. "Quelques euros en paiement" © Julien Jorge, licensed under CC-BY-SA.
  4. "Pizza Landscape" © Peter Harrison, licensed under CC-BY.
  5. "Dancing at a club", dedicated to the public domain.
  6. "Stiegl beer", © Dan Karran, licensed under CC-BY-SA.
  7. "Bratislava New Year 2005 FireWorks", released into the public domain.
  8. "Pints, ready for the 'off'", released into the public domain.
  9. "Discoteque in Berlin", released into the public domain.
  10. "Shaoxing rice wine" © udono, licensed under CC-BY-SA.
  11. "Sonnenaufgang im Forstbotanischen Garten Tharandt" © Henry Muehlpfordt, licensed under CC-BY-SA.
  12. "Japanese Sleeping Style in Train", released into the public domain.

Brianna Laugher lives in Melbourne, Australia and has been a Wikimedian since 2005. She writes on Wikimedia and free content-related topics in her blog at http://brianna.modernthings.org/ .