An explanation of the Citizendium license

Preliminary notes (please read):

  • Purpose: this long essay explains in depth why we have chosen CC-by-sa as the license for our own original collaborative content.
  • Summary: this probably isn’t an easy read. You can skip ahead to the license decision, and here is asummary of the reasoning behind it.
  • About links: links to places within this essay are green, while links to other pages are the usual blue.


I. Introduction

A. The decision to be made
B. Our purposes
C. Factors of motivation that influence license choice

II. Some arguments for a noncommercial license

A. The moral argument for a noncommercial license
B. The argument from the Citizendium‘s own financial interest
C. The argument from noncommercial media

III. Some arguments for a commercial license

A. Some moral arguments for a commercial license
B. The argument from maximum reuse
C. The inconveniences of incompatible licenses

IV. Which license will maximize participation?

A. The Citizendium‘s cultural quandary
B. Estimating the motivation of different groups
C. Which license will maximize participation?

V. The license and our relationship with Wikipedia

A. The relationship with Wikipedia
B. The effects of a commercial license on our relationship with Wikipedia

VI. Conclusion: the Citizendium‘s position

A. Some final preliminaries about open content
Our license and license procedure (essential reading)
C. The grounds for this decision (summary of the essay)
D. About this essay

I. Introduction

A. The decision to be made

Since January 2007 when the Citizendium decided to “unfork” from Wikipedia, or delete unchanged Wikipedia articles from our database and encourage original work, the license for our own original articles has been up in the air. We said only, on a generic notice on the wiki, “All new articles will be available under an open content license yet to be determined.” Separately, I made it clear that we were considering the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL for short), the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-by-sa), and the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike License (CC-by-nc-sa). What these licenses all have in common is that, when a copyright owner releases some data under them, then others may publish, or rework and republish, that data free of charge or individual agreement. I will not, except indirectly, argue for these common features, however interesting and necessary such an argument would be. The arguments here instead concern how the licenses differ. They differ primarily in that the GFDL and CC-by-sa allow such reuse to be done for commercial purposes, while CC-by-nc-sa forbids commercial uses. GFDL and CC-by-sa are, as I will say, “commercial licenses” because they permit commercial reuse, while CC-by-nc-sa is called a “noncommercial license” because it forbids commercial reuse. (‘Noncommercial’ is defined below.) So the main question examined here is: should the Citizendium adopt a commercial or a noncommercial license?

Note that the GFDL (managed by the Free Software Foundation) and CC-by-sa (managed by Creative Commons) allow pretty much the same things: roughly speaking, reuse for either commercial or noncommercial purposes, so long as credit (a name and a link back) is given. They differ mainly in that the GFDL was originally written for software documentation, and so has various features that are puzzling to interpret when applied to things like wiki encyclopedias. I recommended the GFDL for Wikipedia back in 2001 because it was the best available open content license at the time–and earned Wikipedia an endorsement from the Free Software Foundation’s Richard Stallman. Considering just the terms of the licenses, it is widely agreed that CC-by-sa is a better license than the GFDL for wiki encyclopedias.

B. Our purposes

Why this is hard to decide. The difficulty in deciding on a license is due to the strength of the arguments on all sides. Each side has, it seems, a “knock-out” argument that compels us to choose it–except for all the other “knock-out” arguments on the other sides. In such a situation, the difficulty rests not with finding a flaw in all but one argument, because that is probably not possible at all; the difficulty rests in the task of weighing the relative merits of the arguments. While I will present some “moral” arguments, the arguments are, generally, utilitarian: they state that we should choose a certain way because that choice will have good effects, or will avoid the bad effects of other options. Comparing the force of such arguments requires estimating the probability of various effects, and comparing the desirability or undesirability of these effects. Our question, therefore, becomes: what criterion or criteria should we use to evaluate the desirability of various effects?

Hierarchy of values. Here I propose an informal hierarchy of values. Generally and roughly, securing the top-ranked value is a higher priority than securing lower-ranked values. It is possible–not to be hoped, but possible–that no such ranking of values is forthcoming. We will simply have to look and see. I stipulate in any case that the project’s highest purpose is to provide vast amounts of easily accessible and high quality content to the world, and this is a global, not a local value. The project has other global purposes, or interests anyway. For example, we hope to serve as an example of a better wiki project; and we hope to avoid libel or distributing other harmful information. But providing a lot of high-quality content is clearly the most important purpose. Hence, we are ultimately working on behalf of humanity, not merely our own local community. This purpose or end has various conditions and possible means, and so my task then is to rank these. Clearly, the first and most obvious value is our own survival, because we must exist in order to secure any other value. Still, our own survival is merely a means to the end of providing good content, and if we cannot do that, we might as well not exist. Besides, as we will see, no license choice poses a threat to our survival. What are our main means, or tools and methods, for providing good content? There are many, of course. Motivating contributors and content partners is one. An efficient content production system, and (if necessary) funds or in-kind donations to develop software and pay organizers, are two more. Of these, I stipulate that motivation is the next highest value, because with adequately motivated contributors, everything else is achievable. Now, if we were to secure a large enough source of funding, that would itself provide an independent source of contributor motivation: some would be paid and others would find financial support to be a good sign that the project is worth participating in. Still, the end of such funding is, again, mainly motivated contributors.

C. Factors of motivation that influence license choice

Four factors of motivation. What, then, are the main means and conditions of motivated contributors in collaborative projects? This is something I’ve made a special study of on several occasions, and suffice it to say that it’s complex and not particularly well understood. Here, however, are some main methods of motivating contributors that might be relevant to the choice of a license:

  1. Culture: encourage a dual culture, both democratic and meritocratic, or a culture that appeals to experts and the general public as much as possible.
  2. Free license: contributors should understand that their work is not only free to read, but is free to be copied and distributed elsewhere, i.e., is not necessarily in the hands of a single entity. Interestingly and confusingly, the choice of a license itself can have a direct effect on the motivation of contributors–and, therefore, on the choice of a license. In short, the very desire for a particular license is one reason to choose that license.
  3. Maintain good public relations: maintain an effective public relations strategy so that the press and Blogosphere also helps raise consciousness and motivate people to join, and makes it easier to recruit people actively.
  4. Ease of use: make the system itself as easy as possible to use.

(There are other important methods of motivating contributors, but they do not seem relevant to the choice of a license.)

Can we rank the importance of any of the above considerations? They each have a special role to play in contributor motivation, and in the growth and impact of the project as a result–and so also in the choice of a license.

For some individuals, some of the items determine their motivation much more than others. A poll of 49 of our most active contributors revealed that a surprisingly large number don’t really care about the license very much. (About a third of the respondents said they didn’t care or know enough to offer an opinion, and only half of 100 people responded. More about this poll soon.) For others, I think the fact that they do, or do not, feel comfortable in our community makes all the difference. But the question ultimately is what factors are most important to contributor motivation in general or on average.

Ranking the factors of motivation. On average, of the above four factors of motivation, I stipulate (plausibly, I think) that culture is the most important. This is, however, because the choice of a license is actually part of culture. If we choose a license that forbids commercial use, that puts us decidedly at odds with the mainstream of the free culture/open source communities, from which many of our authors (and some of our editors) come. Similarly, however, if we choose a license that permits commercial use, that might upset and put off some academics, who are used to working under “educational use only” copyright arrangements, and who have no small amount of hostility to exploitation by profit-making corporations.

Maintaining good public relations is next most important, in the sense that, if our reputation is very poor, it will be extremely difficult to motivate all but the most stalwart of contributors. Finally, ease of use, while deeply important, is not a huge problem for many of our most active contributors, and it is a problem that can be fixed over time, regardless of the choice of license.

Still, we should bear in mind that there are aspects of the license decision that might directly impact our ability to make much good content easily available, and they do not do so by affecting our culture or the factors of motivation generally. If this is not immediately clear, it should become so in the following.

The task ahead. So onto the main event: the actual evaluation of the merits of different arguments. Here I suspect I am going to frustrate a lot of people. I’m afraid I haven’t taken the time to make my writing style more palatable to a popular audience (that’s work!). Also, I will carefully point out the flaws in arguments for the position I support; and I will admit significant strengths in arguments for positions I oppose. This is going to strike some people as wishy-washy, but I’m merely trying to be honest. In the end, I hope it will be clear that the Citizendium‘s position is driven strictly by a fair evaluation of the merits of the arguments, as evaluated using the criteria set out above.

I propose first, in two very long parts, to examine some arguments for using a noncommercial license (CC-by-nc-sa) and then for using a commercial license (CC-by-sa or GFDL). Then, more briefly, I will answer the question, “Which license will maximize participation?” Lastly, I will study what relationship we should have with Wikipedia, and which license conduces most to that.

This piecemeal evaluation of the arguments, however important it might be, might ultimately prove to be inconclusive. I will have to use a final section to draw a conclusion and summarize the arguments from a global perspective.

II. Some arguments for a noncommercial license

The arguments on both sides are, in general, utilitarian. But there is another sort of argument, which does not appeal–at least not directly–to benefits and harms. It appeals, instead, to things like duties, rights, fairness, and commitments. Call such arguments “moral” arguments as opposed to “pragmatic” or “utilitarian” arguments. (Philosophers might prefer the more neutral term “deontological” argument where I use “moral”; utilitarianism is a moral theory, after all.)

A. The moral argument for a noncommercial license

The argument introduced. There is a moral argument for a noncommercial license that runs, in a brief version, as follows. To permit commercial use of content is, specifically, to allow companies to make a profit from the use of the content. But the content itself was donated by volunteers working without compensation. So–the argument goes–it treats those volunteers very unfairly to allow their work to be used by anyone to make a profit. If anyone should profit from the content, one might say, it should be the volunteers. Companies that have little to do with the creation of the content do not deserve the profits they make. There is a particularly pointed way to make this argument (which I alluded to in ablog post). Suppose the Citizendium grows to the size of Wikipedia.
This is quite possible, however probable or improbable you think it might be. Suppose also that, because we are of that size, we have the participation of a sizable portion of all the leading intellectuals of the world, in every field–and so, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of approved articles. These are all long, complete with many links, bibliography, etc., etc.–all the subpage stuff. It’s reference utopia.

If we adopt a license that permits commercial reuse, then every major media company in the world could use CZ content. Such companies are in regular need of reference material of various kinds to supplement their publications, and many already have deals in place with reference publishers. A commercial license would permit CBS News, Fox News, The New York Times, English tabloids, Chinese propaganda sheets, Yahoo!, Google, and all sorts of giant new media companies to use our content without any compensation to us. Perhaps, in time, these media companies would find ways to leverage high-quality Citizendium content to create significant profits. None of that, however, need go actually to support the work of the Citizendium. But this–goes the argument–is obviously unfair. Therefore, we should use a noncommercial license, one that would require just compensation for profit-making use.

Some are apt to be persuaded by this argument immediately, as it explains their hostility to free commercial licenses. Others will understand it on some level, but find it puzzling. Sure, it might seem unfair, but what really is unfair about the situation? One might say that the situation might seem unfair, but if one cannot explain why it’s unfair, then one cannot assume that it is actually unfair.

I find straightforward avowals and denials about the fairness of the situation highly unsatisfying. We won’t get to the bottom of this argument until at least we understand why it seems unfair, and then either affirm or reject those reasons as good reasons to think the situation is unfair.

Some replies. Consider some replies to the argument. First, one might well reply that many people do in fact contribute under the GPL and the GFDL, and other free commercial licenses, and so they clearly do not find the situation unfair.

This reply, however, proves little. The fact that there are people who find nothing unfair about the situation does not mean that there are not others, who would contribute to a free project, if it used a free noncommercial license. Besides, the contributors could simply be confused; one might be treated unfairly, after all, and not realize it. That has happened throughout history. They might not understand what is unfair about the situation until after they have already contributed information that will go to enrich others.

Second, more promisingly, we can make a positive (and common) argument that the arrangement is indeed fair. Consider that we all do have equal rights to profit from a free commercial project. If one person avails himself of this right and succeeds in making money, that does not deprive any other contributor of the right to make money as well. Why be upset about someone else making money from the Citizendium (or whatever)? If you want, you can do just the same.

This is an interesting argument, to be sure, but it isn’t to the point. Just because the licensing situation is equal or fair in one respect (i.e., in the rights to make a profit), that does not mean that it is fair in all other respects as well. Suppose John is a Citizen and Joan is an entrepreneur who has no interest in contributing to the Citizendium. Well, just because John and Joan enjoy the right to profit from the Citizendium–which is, granted, fair enough–if Joan hits upon some scheme to make a lot of money from it, and John doesn’t, John still might regard that as unfair. Joan is still making money from something that John created (helped create),
without compensating him.

After these replies, one might be tempted to say, “Whatever–the burden is on the person who thinks the situation is unfair. If you can’t explain it, you have nothing but a feeling to go on. You have no real reason to think it’s unfair.”

Fairness, desert, and rights. Let’s get quite clear on what situation strikes some as unfair: that one specific party is making money from some information, when neither the creator(s) of that information nor the organization that allowed it to be organized and hosted receives any of the money. It is not at all self-evident that this is an unfair situation. After all, this is true of, for example, folk music, you might say. But the traditional musicians who served as the sources of “folk” popularizers did sometimes greatly resent it when those popularizers got rich with little more than a thanks to the actual sources of the music. The cases are not all that dissimilar.

Clearly, the unfairness has to do with what philosophers call “desert” (not the hot dry places, but whether we deserve something or not) or rights. The reason the situation might seem unfair is that the content exploiters do not deserve their profits; they have no right to them. Alternatively, we might say the content providers deserve a piece of any profit; they have a right to it. If that’s correct, then we need only ask a question: why do they deserve a piece of any profit? Perhaps, we might say, there is a general principle, to wit, you deserve or have a right to compensation for whatever you create, if someone else profits from it. And to fail to get what you deserve is just what unfairness is.

But this principle, correct or not, doesn’t settle the issue. After all, contributors to free software and free content projects do donate the fruits of their labor for everyone’s use. That is, the vast majority of free software and free content projects are set up so that others can profit on the backs of volunteers. Presumably, those volunteers have given up any right they might have to be compensated for their labor. That’s how the system explicitly works. What’s unfair? What’s potentially unfair is this: the fact that there are people who have given up that right doesn’t mean that others would prefer not to give up that right. Most contributors to a project just go along with the license, and into the bargain is thrown their (alleged) right to be compensated in case anyone profits. In that sense, if you want to contribute to a free commercial project, you don’t have a choice about whether to give up your (alleged) right to compensation.

Theoretically anyway, it doesn’t have to be that way. The fact that people in free software and free culture projects do routinely seem to give up their right to be compensated, out of the profits of their “exploiters,” does not help us settle the question what our license should be. What is at issue is not whether you have the right to be compensated for your labor; you do have that right, if you haven’t given it up. What is at issue is whether we should give up this right in the first place. Notice that I use the first person plural: “whether we should give up this right.” It is precisely the fact that this decision has to be made for everyone that makes this difficult. Some people say they license their contributions under some less restrictive license than whatever is used by a given project. This is presumably their right, but it’s nevertheless pointless and silly because anyone who republishes collaboratively created content will not consult the statements made by individual contributors. Like it or not, the decision really is made collectively. Presumably, it must be, or else there wouldn’t be a (collaborative) project in the first place.

The dialectic (as I’ve represented it, anyway) then turns to that question: why would we, as a corporate body, want to give up the right to compensation? We could do so, to be sure. But why would we want to? This, then, leads to the more purely utilitarian arguments (i.e., about advantages and disadvantages). If there are great benefits to be secured by our giving up our rights to be compensated, then perhaps we should do so. But if the benefits are not so great, then we might not wish to do so; and then we might say, and with excellent justification it seems, “Since we do not wish to give up our right to be compensated for profit-making uses, a commercial license would set up a situation we would regard as unfair.” So the question of whether a noncommercial license is required by considerations of fairness actually turns on more utilitarian considerations.

B. The argument from the Citizendium‘s own financial interest

Could the Citizendium‘s content make anyone rich? If, in a rosy future, Citizendium content is copious and good enough to help media giants to turn a profit, then by using a CC-by-nc-sa license, forbidding free use of our content, we might earn money for the project by selling licenses that permit commercial use. In fact, this insight has led some of our Citizens to demand a noncommercial license: it’s simply in our own interest. We would be fools, they say, to give up what could end up being a huge boon to the project–all the more so since those funds would be placed in the hands of corporations that have nothing to do with the production of the content they exploit.

On first glance–if you can temporarily set aside your preconceived notions–one has to admit that this looks right. If media giants are making large profits in part by the use of Citizendium content, perhaps we ought to help ourselves to some of that, rather than simply giving it away. In that case, perhaps we should use a noncommercial license, and sell a reuse license to profit-making entities. It seems a CC-by-nc-sa license could let us do that. The first thing to notice, however, is that this is a conditional argument. What are the chances of all three of the following occurring?

  1. The Citizendium grows to such a size and quality that it could be used by mainstream media companies.
  2. Those companies in fact want to use our content (in any of the various ways in which it might be used).
  3. Their use of our content in fact significantly enhances their profits.

It would seem immodest to expect (1) and (2) with any high degree of certainty, and as to (3), evaluating it requires a knowledge of the publishing business (and the future thereof) that I sadly lack. But I will give it a stab anyway.

What I can say firmly is that all three seem possible. There are, after all, companies that have used Wikipedia content as part of their business models– is probably the best known.

But Wikipedia content is probably not making any of its republishers rich. (For one thing, has struggled to reach profitability.) Still, one might argue, the Citizendium could be very different from Wikipedia in this regard. In short, we could have in time a fund of editor-approved articles that can compare positively not just with Wikipedia, but with most (perhaps all) professionally edited reference works.

(I understand of course that we don’t have many approved articles yet; but this is mainly because approval hasn’t been a high enough priority of mine, as many of our editors will attest. Still, we will be improving the efficiency of our approval process, and I intend to do all I can to increase the proportion of our approved articles by an order of magnitude at least.)

Anyway, the point is that a successful Citizendium could be considerably more valuable to publishers than a successful Wikipedia. Information companies generally depend on the credibility and reliability of information for their business, and both credibility and reliability are advantages that a successful Citizendium would enjoy. The amount of reuse that the Citizendium gets from media companies might be considerably higher than Wikipedia gets. That reuse could be fee-based, and if the fee were reasonable, the companies might well pay. It would be foolish indeed to rule this possibility out of hand.

Still, as long as remains free to read–which of course it always will be–that in itself might be dissuade companies from paying a very significant fee. The business managers would always be asking themselves, “Why on Earth should we pay a premium for content that users can read free anyway? We can simply creatively link to it.”

I also think that in the coming years, it will become increasingly easy to find exactly what you are looking for virtually instantly. The main advantage of including a copy of the Citizendium in a website is that a company may then surround the content with ads, or use the content to enhance some services. But if you can always find the Citizendium article as quickly (or nearly so) as you could find it on some other website, there is no reason to look for the article on that website. This is arguably already the case with Wikipedia (at this writing, Alexa rank of 8) and (Alexa rank of 379).

It is possible that reuse of Citizendium content could, in the future, make someone a tidy profit. But after consideration, it just doesn’t strike me as very likely. My mere guesses don’t refute the argument from our financial interest, to be sure, but it makes the argument appear weaker than it might have seemed at first. We’re fools for giving away something so valuable, you insist? Well, there’s a good chance that it won’t turn out to be as valuable as it might have seemed at first.

Reply: the problem about license sharing. But there is another reply that is even more problematic. For those unfamiliar with the arcana of free licenses, it might just have seemed obvious that the Citizendium could, i.e., was in a position to, sell a license to reuse, if our articles were themselves freely available only under a CC-by-nc-sa license. But this is by no means clear.

The biggest problem with the Citizendium charging a license fee for commercial use is that no single representative of the project–not the Citizendium Foundation, certainly not me–actually owns the copyrights to the entire collection of content. On the accepted view of these matters, whatever license the project chooses, each individual submits his or her contributions under that license. The Citizendium has not declared that individuals are, by contributing content, thereby transferring or in any way sharing their copyright with the Citizendium Foundation, and so it is problematic to suppose the Foundation is in any position to negotiate a fee.

If we did want to sell licenses to commercial operations, two ways have been suggested to attempt to get around this problem. First, we might ask authors’ permission to share copyright with the Citizendium Foundation. It is not clear, however, whether this is legally possible. So, second, we might ask them simply to grant the Foundation the right to negotiate, collectively, a fee on their behalf, much as an agent would negotiate a fee for an anthology. This sort of thing is not unheard of; the Free Software Foundation Europe has posted a Fiduciary License Agreement, though its purpose is not to negotiate an agreement, but to defend programmers legally and to relicense software under improved licenses. (My thanks to the contributors of a Citizendium discussion page on this issue for pointing this out.)

Even if legally feasible, it may be politically difficult. In fact, it might even be so wrenching and destructive to the community that it is not worth attempting to “sell” the proposal to Citizens. Let’s examine why, and see whether there might not be some way around this problem.

It is tantamount to asking Citizens to recognize, en masse, a single entity to speak on their behalf, not only collectively, but individually. When this option was bruited, a number of Citizens objected that they would not trust any body to be able represent them fairly. Suppose a representative body of contributors had the right to review or even make the license agreements, and also managed the budget. But even this suggestion was met with some resistance; if the representative body were an inner circle of the Citizendium Foundation, such as a Board of Directors, that would be even worse, on the view of the objectors. Legally, the Board would have to have ultimate authority; that would make many participants quite nervous. Perhaps rightly so.

There are actually two possible problems here. The first is the political impact of the objection itself, i.e., the controversy over the centralization of fiduciary authority. The second is that there really might be something wrong with a body representing the Citizendium for purposes of negotiating license fees. Let me take these in turn.

First, there would certainly be some political risk involved in proposing that any representative body be given authority over legal and money matters on behalf of the entire project. Regardless of the merits of the objections, certainly there will be some who react with hostility to any suggestion that any body can speak for them, personally. This is particularly the case for people in the open source software community and the allied free culture movement: for all the talk of collaboration and reuse, there is (charmingly) little support for “collectivization” or “unionization” of rights and finances. (Exceptions occur when there is serious infringement of a free license.) It is hard to say exactly how serious a problem this political infighting might be for the Citizendium as a community, but I think it would probably be significant and almost certainly not trivial. That is, a very vocal contingent of contributors would initially resist and campaign against any such organization; and, then, if we were to organize in the way suggested, some of them would probably make a lot of noise in demanding that all of their contributions be removed.

To be sure, political controversy need not by itself stop us from taking action; after all, whatever choice of license we settle on is bound to be controversial. But license sharing is not strictly required by the choice of a noncommercial license–although it might be the only way to make a noncommercial license particularly palatable. (More on that anon.)

Second, what dangers are there in empowering a body to negotiate licensing fees and to distribute the proceeds? Potentially, this makes knowledge more politicizable and more capable of being controlled financially. There are indeed three dangers here: political, financial, and legal.

First, the political danger. In recent generations, too many academics have become motivated by politics, especially in the humanities and social sciences. They regard “remaking the world” as part of their academic mission, sometimes above the mission of truth-seeking (though few would admit this openly, I suppose). As academics would almost certainly dominate a licensing and budging body, one might well fear that they would sometimes make decisions motivated by politics–decisions that have relatively little to do with the effectiveness of distributing Citizendium content or with the project’s financial interests. We can easily anticipate ongoing arguments that begin, “I have contributed much content that is of great monetary value to this project, and I think…” There is something unseemly about that.

Second, the financial danger. We ought to bear in mind the adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is easy to imagine a lucrative agreement with a large corporation, which insists (however quietly or diplomatically) on a certain editorial slant or policy as the price of the agreement. Indeed, even lacking such an open agreement, editors and project managers might well self-censor based on what they know are naturally in the financial interests of the project.

But perhaps these two points don’t prove much. As to the political danger, it is probably impossible to avoid politicizing any representative body in the project, and that might not actually be a bad thing, anyway. (Does it really make sense to complain that politics is politicized?) Politicization is not a special problem afflicting just discussions of licensing fees and budget outlays. And as to the financial danger, the adage about the piper is equally applicable regardless of how the Citizendium is funded: if we are funded mainly through foundation grants, then we must meet the criteria of the foundations, which can be equally biased, and probably more so. It is not as if foundations are magically free of bias simply because they are non-profit; unlike most corporations, many foundations are set up in part to move the world in a particular political direction. Nonprofits pay pipers, and want to call their tunes, too.

Still, there is still a very significant difference between being a vendor in a commercial relationship and being the beneficiary of a donation. Both have strings attached, but vendors typically have legal obligations far above the obligations imposed on the recipients of donations.

And that brings us to the third point, which is the legal danger. Content owners have greater legal liability. If the Citizendium does not actually hold any copyrights itself, but merely aggregates other people’s content, then there is less legal ground on which to sue the project. This strikes me as a fairly important consideration, actually. It seems that, if we grow to the size and credibility we hope for, it is only a matter of time before we face liability and copyright lawsuits. Unless we can be quite certain that we can absorb such costs–and we definitely cannot, now–then it is a considerable advantage to minimize our liability.

Finally, on the whole issue of copyright sharing, it is worth reflecting on the very idea of “collectivizing” or “unionizing” a project like the Citizendium, and thereby becoming an entity with special financial obligations and legal liabilities. There is no question that it is a burden to have such obligations and liabilities, and it would
be far better, everything else being equal, to remain unencumbered.

It would also be, arguably, more appropriate to remain unencumbered, particularly for a project that is devoted to openness and being bottom-up. As long as the project is relatively free of obligations and liabilities, it is easier to remain open and bottom-up; as soon as we have to start worrying about being sued, or delivering a product or service on time, then the increased risks will create pressures to make the project more closed and more closely controlled from the top down. One can imagine how a project bound up with the marketplace could, over the long term, come to resemble a “business” itself, and therefore institutionally contemptuous of newcomers, bureaucratized, and increasingly controlled from the top.

Similarly, we might recall that one of the key pieces of our identity is that we are an online constitutional republic. A republic, to be robust, should avoid legal and financial relationships that pose a threat to its sovereignty. It might, therefore, be best for our own “sovereignty” (or independence) if we remain unencumbered by financial and legal relationships. The “constitutional” advantages of avoiding such relationships might turn out to be worth far more than whatever money might be generated. While this point can be stated briefly, it strikes me as extremely important indeed.

I do not pretend that the considerations of the last few paragraphs are definitive. I can imagine someone arguing that our taking on responsibilities of greater obligation and liability, and perhaps struggling to remain open and sovereign, are just the costs of staying true to our educational mission. But, on my analysis anyway, such an attitude doesn’t seem very persuasive.

A noncommercial license without license sharing? Suppose that you find these considerations decisive, both against license sharing and so also against the argument from our financial interest. (I don’t think they are perfectly decisive.) But if you thought the only good reason to insist on a noncommercial license was to be able to raise money for the project through license fees, then the failure of the case for license sharing would leave you no reason to support a noncommercial license.

Still, you might want to use a noncommercial license for some other reason I have not yet covered. What is interesting about such a position, however, is that it would prevent everyone from making money on commercial uses of Citizendium content. And surely this is a position that resonates with a few people–but probably not many. In our discussions, those who hate the idea of uncompensated commercial use have not, as far as I recall, come out against all commercial use altogether. Still, we can imagine someone saying: “The Citizendium is a knowledge project. Whatever its differences, it has much in common with purely academic projects. Such projects permit educational and non-profit uses, but no commercial uses at all, because they are committed to authoritative, independent information.” First, in many cases, the latter is false. Academic projects of all sorts often have commercial applications, and the fact that they have such applications is not usually taken to entail the corruption of the project. It is, instead, merely a reflection of the fact that academics sometimes produce things (such as biomedical research or engineering advances) that have applications the marketplace will reward. That is not, in itself, something to be concerned about, in my opinion.

Perhaps it is not fair or right that we might produce content that people exploit for profit, without compensation to us. What is clear to me, however, is that the reason it would not be fair is not simply because someone is making a profit based on a knowledge project, period. Personally, I think making profits, whether based on a knowledge project or not, is a moral activity. It’s not my thing, but I don’t begrudge people their more lucrative interests.

Reply: our commercial reusers will support us financially. Despite my analysis, you might still have qualms about uncompensated commercial use of the Citizendium‘s content. There is a solid point that helps mitigate these qualms, however. It is that, if we are successful enough to attract commercial reuse, our commercial users can be expected to support us through donations. This means that people who do profit from our work will help ensure we do not go entirely unrewarded for it. To be sure, this does not remove any objections on grounds of unfairness, i.e., objections to commercial profiteering on the backs of volunteer Citizens.
But it does constitute at least a partly effective reply to the argument from our own financial interest: we will, after all, reap some financial rewards.

Unsurprisingly, the case of Wikipedia is instructive here. A number of corporations that benefit from Wikipedia support it through cash and in-kind donations, but not at a level at which it can sustain its own operations. The majority of Wikipedia’s operating funds comes through individual donations, not from commercial reusers.

The Citizendium, if successful, can probably expect to be better supported by commercial reusers, for the simple reason that the Citizendium‘s content would be more commercially valuable than Wikipedia’s. But this is by no means certain, of course.

The relevant question here is whether the Citizendium would receive significantly more money through license fees (if we used a noncommercial license) or through donations (if we used a commercial license). I don’t think there is any way to know this with any certainty at all. On the one hand, there would no doubt be more commercial use, if commercial use were free, and hence there would be more entities willing to donate to us, which could bring a tidy sum. On the other hand, the total fees that commercial reusers are willing to pay could be considerably more than that, even if smaller in number. If I had to guess, I would say that we would in the end receive more money if we were to charge license fees. But I really have no idea, and I doubt there is any way to know in advance.

It does seem likely, however, that our commercial reusers would not allow the project to collapse altogether due to lack of funds. “That’s something,” as they say.

Reply: small commercial reuse is harmless yet important. Another reply is perhaps less momentous, but still worth mentioning. Suppose a blogger who runs ads on his blog wanted to reproduce a Citizendium article; it does no harm to do so, and indeed, the increased publicity of the project is more valuable than any tiny amount of cash the blog post might have earned him. (Most bloggers, of course, earn virtually nothing–even some very popular ones.)

More generally, free reuse encourages a kind of online public awareness of a project that is far more valuable to the project, and to the overall aims of the project, than the tiny amount of revenue that we might reasonably request for all such reuse. Of course, if we required a fee, no such small reusers would pay it, and probably our content would be much less publicized than it would be otherwise. And this sort of publicity is arguably very important. For one thing, completely free reusability encourages people not only to reuse content, but to link to it and talk about it. It “feels” to the Web 2.0 crowd like something that is owned more in common, and for
that reason, something they can support with such publicity.

The use of a noncommercial license would forbid this sort of use–and that is, I would say, a problem.

Some creative solutions. Suppose we announce that the Citizendium will be free for commercial use. Then we can perhaps use this to do fundraising for the project even now. “Don’t you think your company will be able to make use of Citizendium content after a few years?” goes the pitch. “Then consider donating, and ensure that the project continues to accelerate its growth.”

Moreover, we might (in various ways) make it an informal, legally nonbinding expectation that commercial reusers compensate us for their use. Language on a page about reuse might state: “We believe in free reuse for all. Nevertheless, particularly if you make a profit from your use of our content, we believe it is only fair that you share some of the proceeds back with the project. We do not require this, but surely it is the least you can do, if you are using the labor of thousands of volunteers to enrich your own personal concern. We feel it is important that those who profit from our work ‘give back’ generously.”

An interesting variant would be to make the content available to everyone under a commercial license, excepting for-profit companies that are making above a certain level of revenue or profit: the community might vote on the size of the corporation. For them, a noncommercial license would be in effect, and they would legally have to purchase the right of reuse.

But the latter too could be a non-legally binding expectation, which would avoid the problems enumerated above. We might place on our page about reuse: “You may use the Citizendium‘s content legally without compensation. However, if your concern has a profit margin above X, then we will request a minimum yearly donation. This is not legally required, but it is expected by our community.” If a company does use our content without compensating us at least at the requested amount, that could be made a PR problem for them. The headline would read:

Successful Corporation Abuses Citizendium Content

Profits from but Refuses to Support the Community

No commercial concern would wish to see that headline.

C. The argument from noncommercial media

A third argument for a noncommercial license can be canvassed much more briefly. A commercial license would have a definite disadvantage. Suppose that we require all media that is contributed to the Citizendium to be licensed under the same license (which permits commercial use) as the license for the text. Then we (the Citizendium) could not use, for example, the work of artists who would be happy to let their work be used for nonprofit purposes, but who do not wish to give their work away for commercial purposes. There are already, in fact, many copyrighted images on the Citizendium, including some for which we have specific permission, though the copyright holder has not given up any further rights. Such use should be permitted. Therefore–goes the argument–we should use a noncommercial license. That way, we will be able to continue to use such work.

It seems plausible that work licensed for noncommercial use only might be on average of higher quality, though I cannot cite any evidence for this point. At least, we will be able to secure the work of professionals if we do not require them to release their work under a commercial license. So, in the interest of higher quality media, we should use a noncommercial license.

But this argument does not prove very much. Regardless of what license we use for article text, we can allow people to submit media however licensed, as long as it is of a sort that gives the Citizendium the legal right to use it. Indeed, that has been our implicit policy, and I don’t propose to change it. So special and separate
permission will have to be sought for reuse of much (not all) of our media. Therefore, the argument from noncommercial media doesn’t really support the use of a noncommercial license for our article text.

Similar remarks can be made about the licensing of signed articles: the Citizendium is willing to host, with permission, signed articles that cannot be further redistributed without separate permission.

III. Some arguments for a commercial license

A. Some moral arguments for a commercial license

A simple argument for compatibility with Wikipedia. There is a simple moral argument that we should adopt a license compatible with Wikipedia’s–and so, a commercial license. We can use Wikipedia’s content, so to be fair, Wikipedia should be able to use ours. For Wikipedia to be able to use ours, we must make our content reusable under either the GFDL or else CC-by-sa (which is soon to be made compatible with the GFDL). To be sure, equal reusability isn’t legally required. We’re well within our legal rights to choose a different license from Wikipedia’s for all the new content that we create. The point is that, one might well argue, it is morally required to make our content equally reusable by Wikipedia.

While interesting, I don’t find the argument to be persuasive. I would reply with a little reductio. If anyone who uses Wikipedia’s content is morally obligated to release all of their original content under the same license, that would require any project that used just one Wikipedia article to use Wikipedia’s license, for the sake of parity. But that seems absurd. It surely isn’t the case that “just one drop taints the whole batch.” More to the point, any such moral obligation should be reflected in the license itself: you have the right to be upset with your reusers, if they don’t use the same license for content they’ve created, only if your license obligates them to do so. Such a license is not likely to be employed, however, simply because it is far too viral, and few people want, as it were, to work for the hegemony of any single license.

The argument from the definition of “free.” Perhaps the most common and simplest argument for allowing commercial use is also, I think, a “moral argument” in approximately the same sense that there is a moral argument for a noncommercial license.

However billed, the argument goes like this. At least since Richard Stallman codified the prevailing “hacker ethic” of share-and-share-alike in his open source software licenses of the GNU projects, started in the 1980s, it has been a common component of open source software projects that they be released under a license that permits commercial reuse. In fact, this has become part of the “official” definition of “open source”, as promulgated by the Open Source Initiative. Section 6 of the definition reads: “The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business…” Indeed, Lawrence Lessig came under some criticism (rather ridiculously, on my view) merely for including noncommercial licenses, including the one we are considering, CC-by-nc-sa, among his set of Creative Commons licenses.

In the mouths of open source advocates, “open source” is equivalent, ceteris paribus or changing only what is necessary to apply to content, to both “open content” and “free.” (It’s all information.) Content cannot properly be called open content, or free, unless it is licensed so as to permit commercial use. So if the Citizendium were to use a noncommercial license, it would not be free by definition. But it is obvious that the Citizendium should be free; there is something morally questionable about failure to be free; therefore, we must not use a noncommercial license. That’s the argument.

Replies: definitions prove little, and gradations of freedom. While appealing to the open source crowd, this argument is unlikely to prove much to anyone else. However well motivated the “official” definition of “open source,” and more generally, however solid the ground on which the advocates’ notion of “free information” (for a catch-all term) rests, it simply proves nothing to say that we have defined “free” in such a way that you may not call your reference work “free” unless you permit uncompensated commercial use. Besides that, there is a fairly straightforward reply. Beyond being free of charge to read, it is possible to “fork” any project that is carried out under a free-but-noncommercial license like CC-by-nc-sa. That is, the content may be copied and then reworked by anyone else, so long as they do not exploit the content commercially. Therefore, the content is not tied to any one person or group: it is “free” or “independent” of any such particular social ties. That seems like a very important sense of “free”–far more important than “free for others to profit from.” The only sense in which the content is not free is that it cannot be freely developed and published for commercial purposes. Granted, it is less free for that reason; but why should it follow that it is not free at all, then? Surely, the fact that the content can be copied and reworked under the same license makes it importantly free. To deny that it is free in any sense looks like simple, ideologically-motivated narrow-mindedness.

Indeed, one can easily take the open source advocates’ position to an extreme. Attribution–the “by” part in “CC-by-sa,” or giving credit to the original source–is required by all these licenses. But if a noncommercial license is called nonfree because it restricts for what purposes the content can be reused, then we can say that the
attribution requirement, too, makes a license nonfree. After all, that requirement makes reuse dependent on your willingness to credit the authors. But what if I don’t want to credit the authors? Then my hands are tied: I’m not free to do so. We ought to say, then, that only renouncing all copyrights, and releasing content into the public domain, makes the content free. So, by similar reasoning, CC-by-sa is not a free license, if CC-by-nc-sa is not. Neither are fully free.

Open source advocates would take issue with the latter suggestion. Public domain content is not free, they say, because modified versions of such content can be copyrighted and made wholly proprietary. An open source license carries a guarantee of freedom, which the public domain does not. But this is not correct. The original content, once in the public domain, forever remains in the public domain. Only adaptations can be copyrighted; if you copyright an adaptation, that does not magically remove the source material from the public domain. So, if you are organizing content and you fail to release it into the public domain, you are certainly restricting
the freedom of others to do something that, after all, they might very much wish to do–namely, to copyright their own versions. Under any open source/open content license, they are not free to do that; they are bound by your wishes. If you say, “Who cares? That sort of freedom is not what we mean by ‘free’,” then of course my answer is: “On what grounds should we care about any particular sense of ‘free’? It is ultimately arbitrary.”

Of course, the reasonable position is that there are gradations of copyright freedom, and some of them are more reasonable and recommendable than others. CC-by-sa is, to be sure, more free than CC-by-nc-sa; but the BSD license is freer than both of these, and on my view the public domain is freest of all. To say that any one of the licenses is “free” to a greater or lesser extent does not help us to rank the desirability of the various licenses (and the lack of a license).

The argument from “what information wants” (to be free, of course). There is a more sophisticated moral argument for allowing commercial use, which does not rely on stipulative definitions of key concepts or dogmatism about where to draw the line across the gradations of freedom. It begins with an answer–but not the only answer–to the question, “Why is it important that information be free, anyway?” The byword of the free information movement is “Information wants to be free.” So, why does it? At least one reason forms the basis of a moral argument for a commercial license. On one account, information “wants to be free” simply because, in the digital age, there is no reason to constrain it. It is so easy to store and transfer, that any restrictions on its free flow must be specifically imposed. The advantages of the free flow of information are so many and varied that, without even listing them out, we can identify the freedom of information as an important principle. You need to have a good reason to keep information boxed in. By this general principle, then, we should use a commercial license, because that allows information to flow freely for commercial purposes.

As appealing as this argument might be, the problem is that it “proves too much.” If, as a thoroughgoing principle, information “wants to be free,” then again we ought to give up all copyrights and release our work to the public domain. You might be inclined to say that this does not guarantee the future freedom of this information, but it does after all guarantee the maximum freedom of this information–even the freedom to become proprietary, which again is for some an important freedom.

There are some ideologues who would have us do away with all copyrights and all patents, and perhaps we should, if it is true that information wants to be free. Indeed, some wackos might even prefer that we make medical records public. But for me, this is a reductio ad absurdum. The abundant advantages of having copyrights and patents–and privacy, such as closed medical records–makes it clear that free-spirited information, like children, shouldn’t be given what everything it wants.

The argument from social ownership. Here is another argument, which is the most persuasive of the moral arguments, I think. In brief, it goes like this. We might say that whatever radical collaborations produce is “owned” by large, changeable, indiscriminate groups of people. In short, it is “socially owned.” A condition of the very existence of such products of collaboration is that they be owned socially. But there is nothing special about any particular group of people that creates a particular Citizendium article, for example; it could have been another group entirely. When the actual composition of the group is irrelevant to ownership, then the broadest range of uses should be possible, including commercial uses. So, we should adopt a commercial license.

There is one interesting thing about this article that needs elaboration: the idea that productions are “socially owned.” Will this stand up to scrutiny?

Suppose, as is often the case, many people contribute to a particular article. Although the edit history makes it clear who added (or removed) which part of the article, individual edits are not valuable apart from the whole article. Furthermore, an individual article, regardless of how brilliant, loses most of its value if removed from the overall collection of articles: what makes an encyclopedia article really valuable is the fact that it is part of an interconnected web of content. Therefore, while legally all and only the contributors jointly “own” the article–if the article as whole can be said to have a legal owner at all–in a looser but still robust sense, it is everyone in the project who “owns” the article. They each may, and are even encouraged to, take responsibility for it, and to “make it their own.” The barrier to joining the group of “legal” or “official” co-owners of an article is very low.

And if a project is particularly open, like the Citizendium, with people coming and going pretty much at will and with almost no minimum qualifications, society at large has a stake in the project. This is illustrated very well by the interest that people take in Wikipedia articles. To be sure, this is partly because Wikipedia is so widely used and so prominent in search results; but it is also partly because the resource is created itself by the public.

The notion that society as a whole “owns” the article becomes clearer if we imagine a collaborative project over the period of many years, or even (though obviously this has not happened yet) generations. Once some content, or software, is no longer developed by any of its originators, it becomes especially obvious that the information is at best held in trust by its current maintainers.

“Held in trust” is the right phrase, I think, because it implies that the maintainers have an obligation to do a good job, and if they do not, others have the right to step in and try to do better. This is an essential feature of open source and open content licenses and a key principle of the projects that use such licenses. The reason that such projects can gain so many contributors is precisely that they are free of control by any specific group of people. If your contributions were always going to be beholden to some particular, unchangeable group of owners, then you would be much more nervous about contributing. It would be a little like immigrating to a country that permitted neither emigration nor revolutionary change. In any event, the point is that no particular group of people is (somehow) forever blessed as the maintainers of the information: others may start over.

Free information can, in this (limited) sense, take on a life of its own. Perhaps it is best to say it is owned by everyone–or else by no one, so that the notion of “ownership” does not apply. If that is correct, and if any particular group of maintainers is merely “holding the information in trust,” then they both as individuals and as a group lack any moral grounds on which to restrict the use of the information just to noncommercial purposes. They are merely the stewards of the content, acting in the best interests of society, and since society’s interests certainly extend to commercial interests, it is incumbent upon them to release the information under a license that permits commercial use.

On first glance, this looks like a persuasive argument. I also think it gets at the main reason that some people get quite passionate about allowing commercial use. In short, to disallow commercial use is to assert a sort of authority that no one is in a position to assert, given the open, public, fluid nature of the communities that create it.

Here is a reply: people can collaboratively create content under any license they wish. If they wish to use a license that forbids commercial use, then that is their right. If others wish to augment this base of knowledge further, they may do so provided that they agree to the same license. There should not be any moral restrictions on the choice of license. You might think the collaborators imprudent, but not immoral.

There is an interesting rebuttal to this reply, though. The mere fact that people have voluntarily entered into an agreement does not mean that whatever they agree to is right. For instance, the fact that it is possible to enter a suicide pact does not remove all possible moral objections to suicide; if suicide is wrong, then a suicide agreement is also wrong. The fact that people voluntarily agree to forbid commercial use does not necessarily make it right for them to forbid commercial use.

This last exchange turns on an interesting question. When an original organizer or original group of participants exercises its rights in establishing any license under which the content of contributors is distributed, can that exercise be morally criticized? That seems fairly obvious to me: sure. After all, it is possible to critique a decision morally before a decision is even made in the first place. Why should actually making an agreement magically immunize the agreement to all moral criticism? All that the establishment of a license does is make it clear that participants accept a certain license if they participate; it doesn’t mean the original choice of a license was above reproach. So this reply seems to fail.

But another reply is possible, namely, that the argument from social ownership (once again) “proves too much.” By the above reasoning, why shouldn’t we say that such collaboratively-created information should be released into the public domain? After all, if the ground for allowing commercial use is that the information is “socially owned”–owned by everyone or no one–how is that really different from saying that, morally speaking, it should be regarded as being in the public domain? And if that is the proper moral status of that information, why shouldn’t that be its proper legal status?

More generally, the argument from social ownership strikes me as a non sequitur. It is surely true and of great interest that collaboratively developed information is something for which society as a whole may and perhaps should take responsibility. (Indeed, we might anticipate laws that refine the legal status of collaboratively-created information; seebelow.) But it simply does not follow from this interesting insight that there could be no valid grounds on which society might wish to restrict certain kinds of use. Does the “social ownership” of strongly collaborative content create some moral problem about disallowing commercial use? I suspect the answer is “no,” because there could be a reason for disallowing commercial use that actually flows from the fact that the content is socially owned. What if, for whatever economic or social reasons, to generate the largest possible fund of academic or scientific content, it is actually advantageous to choose a noncommercial
license? We cannot simply rule this possibility out a priori. It could actually be true of some kinds of content (such as scientific data) and some communities (such as academic communities). Perhaps the Citizendium will have a larger or better fund of content if we choose a noncommercial license. Open source ideologues might find this implausible, but the world is a very big and surprising place, and it often upsets our preconceived notions.

Just as with the moral argument for a noncommercial license, I find these moral arguments for a commercial license to be interesting but ultimately, taken by themselves, unpersuasive. If we want to find good reasons either for or against a noncommercial license, we must look to the advantages and disadvantages of utilitarian arguments–not to general, uncertain moral principles.

B. The argument from maximum reuse

Maximum reuse is a good thing. Perhaps the strongest argument on this side is simple. A commercial license would permit maximize reuse of Citizendium content. Access to our content is (or will be) presumably a good thing, because it spreads knowledge; therefore, doing more of that directly furthers our purpose, i.e., to provide easily accessible and high quality content to the world.

There is a variation on this argument worth pointing out, as well. If, for whatever reason, the Citizendium fails or does not do as good a job as it should, a commercial license would allow other projects with compatible commercial licenses to move forward with our content. Someone might say, “But who cares about allowing commercial enterprises to develop our content if we drop the ball? Some other noncommercial enterprise could do so.” But this is to misunderstand the point. Many enterprises that develop open source and open content projects are themselves noncommercial, but they use commercial licenses. We would like our content to be as maximally reusable by those sorts of projects, if we drop the ball.

But the incompatibility in this case goes both ways: content licensed so as to permit commercial use cannot be relicensed by another project so as to forbid commercial use, and vice-versa. Why not? Because the licenses themselves are viral; use this content, use the license. And, as annoying as reusers might find it, the licenses probably should be viral. If a project wants to re-release some commercially licensed content under a noncommercial license, doing that would restrict the freedom permitted by the originator of the content. Similarly, if a project wants to release some noncommercially licensed content under a commercial license, doing that would permit more freedom than was intended by the originators of the content. In either case, the wishes of the originators of the content are not respected.

(It’s worth pointing out, as an aside, that someone greatly impressed by the argument from social ownership might insist that the wishes of the originators of the content don’t really matter. The very fact that information is developed according to a certain, public, method means that the information should be maximally free, period. But for reasons stated above, I don’t find this argument to be very compelling.)

So a commercial license, such as CC-by-sa, permits reuse by other projects and websites that use commercial licenses. It does not permit reuse by projects that employ noncommercial licenses, such as CC-by-nc-sa. So why think this is “maximum reuse”?

Well, consider. It is true that commercial and noncommercial licenses are mutually incompatible, and it’s also true that information-building projects that use such incompatible licenses cannot exchange information (easily). Nonprofit enterprises can use both commercial and noncommercial licenses (they just can’t earn a profit); but for-profit enterprises cannot use content generated using a noncommercial license. That’s a significant disparity. Noncommercially licensed information will not be commercially distributed.

Of course, this is not quite right. As I said above, such information could be used commercially if someone had the right to speak on behalf of all the contributors to a noncommercial project, so that they could make agreements with specific businesses. But the point remains that there would certainly not be as much reuse of the information. Most profit-seeking individuals and small businesses, or reusers who just don’t want to go to the bother of making an agreement with the licensing entity, will not reuse the content. This is well known and understood. It is precisely the ease with which information floats around online–think open source software, GFDL-licensed Wikipedia content, and RSS feeds–that makes a lot of the most impressive results of online collaboration possible. The question is whether the Citizendium wishes to partake in these larger “communities” that permit commercial reuse. This would simply not be possible with a noncommercial license. And that is a solid advantage of a commercial license, and simply one of the strongest arguments anyone has about these issues.

Following the existing practice maximizes reuse. It didn’t have to be this way. If, from the beginning, free software, open content, and RSS practices had restricted use to noncommercial reuses, the argument from maximum reuse for a commercial license wouldn’t be nearly as strong. Then there might now be many massive communities online that would be only too happy to reuse and redevelop information released under a noncommercial license. For better or worse, that’s not the case now. In the real world, the free information movement welcomes and aggressively defends commercial reuse. Therefore, a project’s content cannot enjoy maximum reuse if it uses an incompatible–noncommercial–license.

But shouldn’t we change the practice if it’s wrong? With the requirement of real names and a place for experts, the Citizendium already represents, arguably, a step beyond the sometimes immature culture of most of the free information movement. Why shouldn’t we start a new and better practice, which forbids uncompensated commercial reuse?

That seems reasonable, though it would be difficult and very controversial. And it does not diminish the advantage under discussion. Whatever you think of the free information movement and its output–I for one regard it as one of the new wonders of the world, whatever its flaws–there is no question that there would be more use of Citizendium content if we were to use a commercial license. That is, again, a solid point and it really cannot be dismissed.

The difficulty of understanding what is “noncommercial.” Finally and briefly, it is worth prising out one particular aspect of the argument from maximum reuse. Individuals as well as organizations might not particularly want to profit from reusing the Citizendium‘s content, and yet they might still be put off from reuse because they are not sure whether their use is “noncommercial” or not. ‘Noncommercial use’ is defined as follows by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
(by-nc-sa) license
(section 4c):

You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You in Section 3 above in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation. The exchange of the Work for other copyrighted works by means of digital file-sharing or otherwise shall not be considered to be intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation, provided there is no payment of any monetary compensation in connection with the exchange of copyrighted works.

How are potential reusers to determine whether their reuse would be “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation”? No doubt we can develop tests for determining this. But that does not remove doubts on the part of potential reusers–and that is the problem. The license language specifically permits digital file-sharing, but that is only one sort of potential reuse. If someone posts a copy of a Citizendium article to his blog, and he uses Google ads (say), would his reuse of the article be “primarily intended” to earn him money from the ads?

This, however, simply illustrates a broader problem: it will be more of a hassle for everyone to reuse Citizendium content if we permit only noncommercial uses. Insofar as we want maximum redistribution of our content, we should use a commercial license.

A reply: the Citizendium provides adequate availability already. One reply to this argument, used in discussions among our Citizens, is that our website,, already supplies adequate free availability. Isn’t that enough? Why–goes this reply–should we go out of our way to allow other sources to duplicate our content?

On reflection, the answer to that question is obvious. While might always be available, not everyone knows that it exists. More to the point, it requires both knowledge and time to get from “wherever” a person is online to If the goal is to ensure that people benefit from the content of the Citizendium, it is simply more efficient, generally speaking, to let people redistribute it to as many other places online (and offline) as possible.

Special problem: paper copies. Moreover, one special problem about using a noncommercial license is that many of the people who could most use compilations of Citizendium content might not be able to access the Internet at all. The Citizendium website does not provide “adequate availability” to them. But they could
use cheaply-produced paper versions. It would be considerably more likely that these important potential benefactors of the Citizendium‘s work would receive copies if we were to use a commercial license. If only noncommercial enterprises could reproduce our content, or if a commercial enterprise had to pay a fee, that would cut down on the global impact of our work across “the digital divide.”

Though ironic, perhaps, the best way to let our project benefit the world and its neediest seems to be to allow capitalistic “exploitation.” But then, this point is unlikely to be surprising to anyone who has studied the economics of free markets.

C. The inconveniences

of incompatible licenses

There are some problems associated with article text within the Citizendium being licensed under two distinct and incompatible licenses (the GFDL for the Wikipedia-sourced articles and CC-by-nc-sa for our original articles).

As I was drafting this essay, it was announced that Creative Commons, Wikipedia, and the Free Software Foundation had come to agreement: the GFDL would be written so that those using it could upgrade to a new version that would permit reusers to combine content with content licensed by CC-by-sa. Moreover, Wikipedia would then upgrade to that new version. I believe this means that those using GFDL-licensed Wikipedia content could relicense the same content under CC-by-sa if desired. In short, GFDL and CC-by-sa are now compatible. But the deal hasn’t been entirely concluded yet, as of this writing; the Wikipedia community still needs to (somehow?) “approve” of the change.

But both of those licenses are still incompatible with CC-by-nc-sa.

Incompatibility with Wikipedia. One might well see incompatibility with Wikipedia’s license to be a significant inconvenience, precisely for Wikipedians wishing to use Citizendium content. This, of course, might be one inconvenience that some of us may not care so much about. See below for an elaboration.

Internal incompatibility. Our using a noncommercial license would create incompatibility within the Citizendium‘s own article base. In other words, some articles would be licensed using the GFDL, and some CC-by-nc-sa, and since those licenses are incompatible, the article content couldn’t be mixed. If we wished to combine articles using different licenses, we simply couldn’t.

There are some grounds on which to call this into question (see the “digression” below). Regardless, the Citizendium will proceed on the assumption that we cannot combine text taken from incompatible licenses within the same article. (For one thing, it would be practically impossible to keep straight which parts of an article are licensed under which license.) If we cannot mix licenses for the text within the same article, that means that we must declare that an article is either commercial or noncommercial. That in turn is apt to cause all sorts of undesirable effects. Some people, zealots for commercial licenses, might upload Wikipedia articles to the Citizendium just to ensure that we use the “better” license. Others, zealots for noncommercial licenses, might recommend deleting Wikipedia articles with prejudice, even those that have been improved significantly over their source material. Divisive political battles might result; but such battles would not occur if the Citizendium went with CC-by-sa or the GFDL, which are compatible with Wikipedia.

A digression about a conceptual infelicity. I’d like to digress, only slightly, to point out a conceptual infelicity here. According to usual practice and dogma on Wikipedia, individuals license their own edits, and the managing organization–the Wikimedia Foundation in this case–does not do any licensing at all. It merely aggregates and releases a whole body of content that, by a requirement it imposes on its contributors, appears under the same license.

This becomes a conceptual problem for reusers, who obviously need to know what the item is that is being licensed for reuse: the entire work, i.e., all of Wikipedia? Individual articles (which is what the Citizendium and others widely assume)? Or individual edits? Bear in mind that, according to the dogma, only individual edits can be licensed by anyone. To say that articles can be individually licensed is to assume that an article has an individual licensor. But that simply isn’t the case, unless it has a single contributor, which rarely happens.

Therefore, I do not know what is preventing the Citizendium from saying, for example: the GFDL applies to this paragraph, which was licensed by an individual for use on Wikipedia under the GFDL, but the rest of the article is CC-by-nc-sa. If the reply is to say, “But that’s not a complete work,” I answer: “Of course it is. The complete work is whatever can be licensed under the GFDL. The only thing that can be licensed under the GFDL are individual edits.”

Still, with a wink and a nod, I suggest that the Citizendium ignore this conceptual infelicity, and pretend that there is some good license-based grounds for requiring that the text of whole articles be kept under the same license. We are happy to mix text and other media under multiple licenses, however. We are also happy to mix different licenses throughout a whole Citizendium cluster.

Reuse considerably more difficult. Having different articles available under different licenses would require us to distinguish between two sets of articles for purposes of creating downloadable, reusable data ourselves, and would make reuse and publishing of our content more complex and difficult. It is not clear whether anyone would want to reuse the entire body of Citizendium articles: to do so would require that reusers, too, employ incompatible licenses within their own database. Either they do that, or they download just the commercial articles (sourced from Wikipedia) or just the noncommercial articles (original to the Citizendium). It seems unlikely that anyone would do this, since it would be entirely arbitrary which articles are commercial and which noncommercial.

In short, incompatible licenses would rather strongly discourage reuse of the entire body of work.

Suffice it to say that using incompatible licenses for different sets of Citizendium articles would pose some serious headaches. These may not be show-stoppers, but they wouldn’t be pleasant; and the pain could be avoided simply by using a license compatible with Wikipedia’s.

IV. Which license will maximize participation?

One of our goals is to distribute our content as broadly as possible. Our choice of license will impact not only this goal, but also the distinct goal of maximizing the amount of reliable content available. This is because the choice of license can impact the willingness of people to contribute.

In this section, I want to answer two questions:

  1. How can we expect different license choices to affect the motivation of different groups of contributors?
  2. And so which license will maximize overall participation?

A. The Citizendium‘s cultural quandary

The license poll of active contributors. To help understand the impact of the license choice on contributor motivation, let me share the results of the above-mentioned poll. On October 1, I circulated a poll question to approximately 100 of the most prolific Citizendium contributors of the previous three months (as determined by number of edits). I asked whether they would prefer that we use the GFDL, CC-by-sa, and CC-by-nc-sa. There were 54 responses, and the breakdown was as follows.

(Thanks to Stephen Ewen for tabulating these results and for writing most of the analysis of them that immediately follows.)

Poll resultsTotals = 54

GFDL = 7.25

CC-by-sa = 12.25

CC-by-nc-sa = 18.5

Other = 16 (and about 50 non-respondents)

Note this means there were 19.5 respondents in favor of a commercial use license (GFDL or CC-by-sa) and 18.5 in favor of a noncommercial license.

Editors = 21

GFDL = .75+.50+.50 = 1.75

CC-by-sa = .25+.50+1+.25+1+.50 = 3.50

CC-by-nc-sa = 1+1+1+1+1+1+.75+1+1+1+1 = 10.75

Ambivalent / Either way is okay = 1+1+1+1 = 4

Ignorant = 1

Authors = 30

GFDL = .50+1+.50+1+.50+1 = 4.5

CC-by-sa = 1+.50+1+1+1+.50+.25+1+.50+1 = 7.75

CC-by-nc-sa = 1+1+1+1+.75+1+1+1 = 7.75

Ambivalent / Either way is okay = 1+1+1+1+1 = 5

I don’t know = 1+1 = 2

Ignorant = 1+1 = 2

CZ must get this right = 1

Techs = 3

GFDL = 1

CC-by-sa = 1

I don’t know = 1


The fractional numbers are meant to represent the opinions of people who said “Either A or B,” or “I’d prefer A but B would be OK.” Each person’s opinion was weighted as 1 (total).

The respondents overall were not particularly sophisticated with licensing issues. Moreover, the number of “Ambivalent / Either way is OK” suggests licensing is not a principle factor in their choice to contribute. One casual Wikipedia contributor, also casual on the Citizendium, commented, “I’m not sure what number 1 [the GFDL] is.” Alongside is a general realization among these respondents that there are drawbacks/benefits either way. One editor’s comments perhaps best expressed these combined views, “Personally I don’t care, and would support a least worst decision, whatever that is.”

Most who made longer comments argued primarily upon moral considerations for non-commercial. One longer comment exception was pro-GFDL, arguing for compatibility with Wikipedia.

Of the 21 editor respondents expressing a commercial or non-commercial preference, around two to one preferred non-commercial. Those in the combined ambivalent /either way, I don’t know, and ignorant categories were about the same as in the commercial category.

The 30 author respondents were a different story. The plurality were in the combined ambivalent /either way, I don’t know, and ignorant categories (10, versus 7.75 for each of CC-by-sa and CC-by-nc-sa). Of those expressing a preference, around 2/3 expressed commercial.

Of the 3 “techs” (programmers), 2 expressed commercial, divided between the CC and GFDL; 1 did not know which direction the Citizendium should take.

These numbers tell an interesting story. Editors as a group prefer a noncommercial license, while authors as a group–a larger group overall–prefer a commercial license, or what advocates call a “free” license. This reflects the Citizendium‘s effort to forge a “hybrid” project, attractive to multiple communities. These numbers are not at all implausible, either, considering the lengthy discussions that have happened on the Citizendium forums (see here and more generally here). But note that the poll–and our rate of non-response–makes it clear that most Citizens do not feel as passionately as do many of the discussantsin the forums.

An existential choice. Even if our contributors are not especially excited about the decision, the striking division of opinion still indicates that a sort of existential choice needs to be made. It is possible to represent this decision in a misleadingly dramatic way, as follows.

“What sort of project do we want to be?” one side says. “Do we want to ignore the opinions and attitudes of our most important contributors, which make us a distinctive project — our experts? Honest academics don’t work as slaves on behalf of industry, but are fair brokers of the truth. It is crucial that the Citizendium remain fully independent of commercial influence.”

“Indeed, what sort of project do we want to be?” the other side says. “Do you want to be a closed, unfree project? The open source software community has demonstrated the value of free licenses. This model has been proven to be superior to the traditional academic one, which allows ‘educational use only.’ Freedom is our top priority.”

Though I have no doubt that a few people will find themselves perfectly represented by one side or the other, I have exaggerated and caricatured both sides for effect, and I think the most appropriate attitude our Citizens should have lies in between.

On the one hand, we aren’t Expertpedia; we are the Citizendium. I deliberately avoided a name that trumpeted expert involvement. Our distinctive feature is that we are generally a more responsible community with more reliable content, as unsexy as that might seem. We aren’t just another academic project. What academic projects invite open, general participation from around the world in radically collaborative way? What academic projects permit broad distribution and “share-alike” reworking of content? On the other hand, we are also not your typical open source, Web 2.0, free culture project. We have a role for experts; we use our own real
names and identities; and we reject the canards of “no management” and “benevolent dictatorship” in favor of a constitutional, representative republic.

From the beginning, the Citizendium was billed as an effort to marry some good elements from two unfortunately disparate communities. The approach the Citizendium will take to our license question will, I hope, be a creative way to do justice to much, if not all, of the underlying concerns both of academics and of the free culture movement.

One might take the view that we should not overestimate the potential negative reaction to our choosing any license. Among the 100 active Citizens I asked to weigh in on the license, only 38 bothered to offer a definite opinion, and these were pretty evenly divided between commercial versus noncommercial–the edge, surely not statistically significant, given slightly to the former. None of those (most active) Citizens threatened, “I will leave if you don’t choose the way I want,” although later, one or two people on each side did say this–none of them very active.

But this point does not go very far, because the most active Citizens have been precisely those who are willing to participate without a clear license. It is possible that we will gain more participants once we decide one way or another, just because we’ve made the decision. I doubt this, but it’s possible. Indeed, if we get a fresh infusion of contributors after announcing a license, that will probably be because of the interest that accompanies the announcement. In any case, it’s more important that we examine what will maximize contributor motivation over the long haul.

B. Estimating the motivation of different groups

Editors and academics. Most of our editors are academics, and while academics usually favor a noncommercial, educational use only sort of license, they do not seem to be especially animated by license issues generally. Most of them do not seem to know or care much about what our license is; for most, if we choose a commercial license, it won’t make much of a difference.

Moreover, some significant number of the academics who are inclined to the noncommercial side could change their minds, once they become fully acquainted with the arguments for a noncommercial license. It is not hard to argue that an “educational use only” sort of arrangement might have been appropriate in the past, but the expansion of content creation projects outside of the educational or academic sphere makes a more inclusive license possible. More generally, the arguments on the commercial side are at least as compelling as on the noncommercial side, and we can expect many academics to go where the arguments lead.

If there is a significant worry on this side, it is that large and influential groups, such as professional organizations and major academic presses, would refuse to get involved, on grounds that a license that permits commercial reuse would reduce their rights or influence. Some professional authors and publishers would not want to contribute to a work that their competitors can simply take and reuse without compensation. Why should they get involved? What’s in it for us?

But the professionals who ask “What’s in it for us?” will not wish to get involved in any case, and that is not just because the content can be reused for commercial purposes, but because it can be reused at all, and because indeed they aren’t paid for their work. Academics do, of course, do a lot of publishing work without monetary
compensation, but this mostly takes the form of peer-reviewed research publishing, for which they’re compensated in their careers. They are much more reluctant to write general informational resources, such as reference materials and textbooks, without compensation. If one removes both compensation and the right of control, professional writers and publishers will simply not want to get involved. But this is true whether we use CC-by-sa or CC-by-nc-sa. It’s the common elements, the “CC” (free) and the “sa” (ShareAlike) parts, that they object to.

It is worth pointing out that one moderately successful expert project, the Encyclopedia of Earth, actually uses CC-by-sa. But another more recent (and much better funded) project, the Encyclopedia of Life, will probably not permit reuse of some of its content at all; two more examples of academic projects, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Scholarpedia, do not permit republishing without specific permission at all

I point this out not to call into question whether we should use an open content license at all, but because our use of an open content license, whether commercial or noncommercial, will put off most of the people who would be put off by a commercial free license. In brief, the category of academics perfectly comfortable with a free license but not comfortable with a commercial free license is apt to be very small indeed–and far smaller than the category of academics uncomfortable with free licenses, period. So if you want to be sure to snag the academic publishing traditionalists, it’s too late: the decision that puts them off, to use a free license, has already been made.

I don’t mean to dismiss entirely the fact, which seems obvious, that there will be some academics who are put off by a commercial free license and who would not be put off by a noncommercial free license. It’s just that I believe the number of academics who would be seriously disaffected by the choice is very small.

The free culture crowd. With another group, matters are very different. A far higher percentage of the “free culture” and “open source software” (OSS or FOSS) crowds really care, and passionately so, about licensing issues. There is a significant minority of potential Citizens who would not dream of participating if we were to use a noncommercial license. And if we were to use a commercial license, we would instantly become much more attractive than we are now. Indeed, these people have criticized us, sometimes bitterly, for not announcing a license choice in our first year.

To be sure, among our most active contributors, there are not very many free culture zealots, and it is quite possible that we will never have many. (I use the word “zealot” not because I disagree with them. In fact, I do agree with them. I merely dislike all kinds of zealotry–even in support of my own causes.) But this crowd includes many influential commentators; indeed, the leaders of the various open content projects are usually very strong supporters of open content and free software, as are most of the people who write for Slashdot, and many tech columnists. In short, among the Web 2.0 opinion-makers, free culture zealots loom large. They can influence our “brand” or public reputation, how we are reported on in the technical press, and how many people are introduced to us.

It is worth pointing out that the Citizendium has already put off some of the free culture crowd, for the simple reason that we have rejected some of their usual policies; for example, we forbid anonymity, and we have a role for experts in our system. Also, maybe more importantly, some people hold up Wikipedia as the leading free culture success story, and they think an alternative like Citizendium is neither necessary nor desirable. For these reasons, it would be impossible for the Citizendium to win over the free culture crowd entirely, not anytime soon, and so it would be a waste of time to try. But the choice of a noncommercial license would give this crowd a reason to positively demonize us. That is, at least, a weak reason to choose a noncommercial license: quite simply, good public relations.

Everyone else. I think probably the majority, or at least the plurality, of our most active contributors are neither dyed-in-the-wool academics wedded to “educational use only,” nor dyed-in-the-wool free culture zealots. This probably applies to most of our future contributors as well. I have no clear idea of where most of them will fall on these issues.

C. Which license will maximize participation?

So, pressed to name which sort of license would maximize participation, I would say a commercial license would help us, at least a little–not necessarily very much.

But it isn’t quite as simple as this. One caveat is that we might have more well-informed, mature contributors if we were to choose a noncommercial license–I say that only because we might gain a higher concentration of older academics (the traditionalists). Yet I think the advantage there is marginal at best. I suspect that the overall activity of the wiki would increase over the short and medium term, which would mean that there would be more academics, period, even if there were a lower concentration of them.

Another caveat is that the dynamics of the decision might change over time. It might turn out, for example, that we become increasingly influential and therefore attractive to academics to contribute to. As more and more mainstream academics–meaning the “educational use only” traditionalists–consider joining, there might well be increasing dissatisfaction with the choice of a commercial license, and regret that we did not earlier choose a noncommercial license. But after a few more years, I think that academics will be introduced–dare I say indoctrinated?–into the value system of the free culture and free software movements. This has already
happened with a number of Wikipedian academics and Citizens. So I don’t think it is crucial that we as it were prepare the way for a flood of traditional academics by automatically opting for a noncommercial license. After all, it seems likely that much of the older generation of scholars will never be interested in any such project. (I say this knowing full well that a few of our most distinguished and active contributors are in fact “very seasoned” professionals. They are delightful exceptions.)

In short, considerations of Citizen participation argue, weakly, in favor of a commercial license.

V. The license and our relationship with Wikipedia

A. The relationship with Wikipedia

For many, our relationship with Wikipedia is crucial to the license decision. Some think that we should choose a license compatible with Wikipedia’s, so as to remain in the spirit of free exchange that is essential to the notion of open content. Others think that we should choose a license incompatible with Wikipedia’s, to prevent Wikipedia from using our content and to make sure that we clearly distinguish ourselves from the older project.

The underlying question, which is worth examining separately, is: what sort of relationship do we want to have with Wikipedia? Are we competing or cooperating–or perhaps some of each? How?

We are not in business to put Wikipedia out of business. But we do hope to outdo them in value–that is, in quality, quantity (in the fullness of time), and in the maturity and responsibility of our community. So we are naturally neutral competitors; while we might have criticisms of Wikipedia, and while we might think those criticisms make the Citizendium necessary as an alternative, such criticisms do not justify our aiming to shut Wikipedia down. Here’s another way to put it: the Citizendium is an improvement on Wikipedia, but that does not mean that Wikipedia is useless. Speaking for myself, I’ve always said that Wikipedia remains a force for good in the world, whatever its flaws. On balance, I remain a fan of the project I engineered. I merely think we can do better–and so we should try. I suspect these sentiments are shared by a majority of Citizens.

Given these sentiments, if we cooperate with Wikipedia, it should be in our own interest to do so. This is because the competition with Wikipedia includes, most importantly, competition for contributors. While I have long thought that Wikipedia and the Citizendium maintain only slightly overlapping social niches, in fact, a majority of our active participants are former Wikipedians, and there are some who straddle the projects and some who would be Citizens but for the fact that we are not large enough yet. Realistically speaking, though there will always be many “die hards” in both communities–people who would never set foot in the other communities–there is a fairly large number of people who might (and actually do) work on either project, depending on circumstances. As the Citizendium grows in size and viability, it is likely to win the allegiance of more of these people. Therefore, how, i.e., what license scheme, is likely to do win them over?

To answer this question, it is worth examining different statements about how commercial and noncommercial licenses would affect our relationship with Wikipedia.

B. The effects of a commercial license on our relationship with Wikipedia

Suppose that we chose a license permitting commercial use: either CC-by-sa or GFDL. This would make it possible for Wikipedia to use original Citizendium articles. What would be the consequences? Let’s see.

Would Wikipedia swipe the Citizendium‘s content and render our project pointless? Indeed, Jimmy Wales and others are on the record saying, in effect, that they don’t mind that the Citizendium is starting up; they’ll simply take the best of our content and use the best of our techniques, if they work. Some Citizens have been greatly concerned about such talk. They detect a subtle implication that Wikipedia will always be one step ahead of the Citizendium, because they will be able to replicate the Citizendium‘s content and policies. And that will render the newer project pointless.

Whatever anyone’s intentions, there is little to worry about here. Already, when the Citizendium improves a Wikipedia article, Wikipedia can “borrow back” the Citizendium changes. This has happened, and the world hasn’t crashed around our heads. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have mattered to anyone. As far as I can tell, Wikipedia does not avail itself of our content very much, even when they (already) have the opportunity. I have heard that something like 30-40% of our total articles, including non-“live” articles, got started on Wikipedia, and so they can be “swiped back” by Wikipedia. To be sure, our words can already be seen on Wikipedia–just
not very prominently. That’s fine with us.

But what about articles that the Citizendium has, but that Wikipedia does not have? Unsurprisingly, some Wikipedians made a list of such articles. Last August, they listed around 150 articles that they spotted in the Citizendium that they didn’t have at the time (and that they wanted). That might sound like a lot of articles, until one realizes that that was only about 6% of the total number of articles the Citizendium had at the time. If Wikipedia were to host copies of all of those articles, would it make much difference to us? Surely not.

The most important answer to the claim here, however, is that Wikipedians are simply too proud to replace their articles with ours. As long as our articles are–for whatever reason–significantly different from Wikipedia’s, the fact that Wikipedia can borrow from our content poses exactly no threat to us. On the other hand, the fact that Wikipedia can improve our content, and we can improve theirs, turns out to be a classic win-win. If we see that they’ve improved a paragraph, we can “steal” it. If they like a table we wrote, they can steal that. Our articles will develop in parallel, and, as experience so far seems to bear out, will grow more dissimilar than similar. But we can still share content. I can imagine “archaeological digs” of text, 50 or 100 years from now, when there are perhaps not two but twenty different significant encyclopedia projects, all exchanging content. Future historians might ask, “Where did this precise sentence, which appears in five different sources, originally come from?”

A reputation for being derivative? As some of my fellow Citizens have suggested, it isn’t the reality of being derivative of Wikipedia that is a problem for the Citizendium, it is the reputation. In other words, even if to any objective observer the Citizendium remains importantly and obviously different from Wikipedia, we might get the reputation for being derivative. It might be (wrongly) believed that Wikipedia has all of our virtues, because they have all of our content, when neither of these claims will ever be true. We could help avoid such misconceptions by using a distinct license and forbid Wikipedia to reuse our original articles.

This seems true, as far as it goes. But we will always seem somewhat derivative insofar as we borrow, and improve upon, Wikipedia’s articles. The question is whether a more vigorous exchange of articles and contributors will make us always seem like an “also ran.” The answer: of course not. The differences in policy are clear and loudly trumpeted. As we grow, the differences in the results will also be clear to see, if they aren’t already.

I think what many people fear is the following scenario: an article begins life on the Citizendium, and is then imported into Wikipedia, where it is greatly expanded. Citizens then always must play “catch up” with Wikipedia. But this would make sense only if Wikipedia did not already have articles about almost everything. That is why Wikipedia is not apt to borrow much of our content, and when they do, then, just as when we borrow their content, it will usually tend to drift in different directions. That’s how things will be, in fact; and general awareness of this fact will, sooner or later, follow.

In short, the two projects will in fact always be different, and in time they will grow only more different; and this fact will make contrary reputations difficult to develop, especially over the long term. As to the short term, well, no one who is deathly afraid of being misunderstood should ever do anything in the public arena, because most of what one does will be misunderstood by many people. That’s not because people are malicious but because communication is difficult. And that shouldn’t stop anyone from taking risks.

A more vigorous exchange of contributors. There are a huge number of mature, well-meaning, intelligent writers contributing to Wikipedia. They are welcome to join the Citizendium, if they like. Already, we’ve had some contributors to the Citizendium who have committed to maintaining and developing articles that they started on Wikipedia for us. They are welcome to do so, as long as our copies really are moving in a different direction: we don’t want to be yet another mirror of Wikipedia. There’s little value that. More relevantly to the current license decision: if Wikipedians thought that content from articles they start for the Citizendium could
be moved to Wikipedia freely, they would be much more likely to start new articles for us, i.e., they’d be more inclined to give us a chance. As long as they can play by our rules, we’d be delighted to have them. If they decided that the Citizendium was not for them, they could always move their content to Wikipedia.

Greasing the wheels of contributor exchange in this way would likely be to the benefit of the Citizendium. Our using a license compatible with Wikipedia’s would make Wikipedians more likely to join us, but would probably not lead to much emigration in the opposite direction. This is not just because work could be easily transferred back and forth between the projects, but also because many Wikipedians would be more comfortable with a license that, like Wikipedia’s, permits commercial reuse.

VI. Conclusion: the Citizendium‘s position

A. Some final preliminaries about open content

Who should be the licensors? Before elaborating the Citizendium‘s license scheme, I want to address one last issue. As one distinguished Citizendium editor suggested, if the license issue is as difficult as the above discussion implies, then we should cover our bases and make sure that we can change the license if we get the decision wrong. It would also be good to be able to change the license if the community changes its mind, or if a better license, for our purposes, comes along.

But there is no way to change the license (even from the more-restrictive CC-by-nc-sa to the less-restrictive CC-by-sa) unless there is a licensor that has the standing or authority to make this decision. As long as we continue the Wikipedia practice of viewing the individual licensors of our whole body of work as the individual contributors, then there is no single licensor. Hence, there is no practical way to improve on a license choice: the license can be made once and for all, period. This, you might think, is a serious problem. Why think we will make the right decision first?

Besides, arguably, we place reusers in a very strange situation by saying that each contributor licenses his contribution individually and no entity licenses the whole thing collectively. Who are the reusers dealing with? Some vague, shifting hydra? There are in fact as many licenses as there are contributions? Perhaps this is a real, practical problem for Wikipedia now. Can the Wikimedia Board speak for all the millions of Wikipedia contributors? Even if there is a public discussion later, who has the authority to assess the outcome of the discussion and to make any decision about a change of license? Quite frankly, the recent “decision” to make Wikipedia content “compatible” with CC-by-sa strikes me as philosophically problematic: by making this claim of compatibility, isn’t the Wikimedia Board arrogating to themselves an authority that they have never had, at least by long and dogmatic proclamation by a large majority of Wikipedians? That’s certainly how I remember it, even since 2001 when we first started discussing this

Therefore–one might argue, as the aforementioned distinguished editor did–whatever else we do, we should simply declare that the Citizendium has the right to change the license in the future. We say that, of course, whatever license was used at time T1 continues to apply for the content released at time T1. But if we change the license at time T2, then the content as it exists at that time is available under T2 and not T1. We add that, of course, such decisions will not be made in a secret proceeding, but only after a fair, rule-governed democratic process. In short, it is absurd to think that our individual contributors are the entities that license our content. It should be the Citizendium that licenses the content.

This seems to be a strong argument, until one considers a few facts.

First, unless we are willing to take a very serious legal and political risk, we will never be able to relicense the material that comes to us from Wikipedia. The Citizendium‘s options with the content that originated with Wikipedia is dependent on Wikipedia’s decisions (however arrived at). So the problem the argument poses simply cannot be solved perfectly in any case.

Second, as we have seen, there is a very vocal minority that cares deeply about the license issue. As I elaborated above, any consideration of relicensing–particularly relicensing from a noncommercial license to a commercial license–would be particularly wrenching. In short, no matter how qualified, the license decision articulated in this paper is going to set a precedent that would be extremely difficult to change, even if the Citizendium Foundation were the licensor and it could (had the standing to) make the change. This does not refute the argument, but it does make the problem the argument poses much less pressing: there is little need to secure the right to change the license if we will probably not want to change the license.

There is, however, one purpose for which Citizens might to stand together and speak with a unified voice, namely, if there are serious violations of our license, over which we want to sue someone. This is something we may want as a community to support, but, as I say below, we can put this decision off until later.

The nature of open content. The above exchange indicates something deeply interesting and important about the nature of open content. Collaborative content communities are made up of individuals that want the benefits of combining their labor with other people, but who want to retain as much control and freedom for themselves as possible. An open content license is their guarantee that they will be able to enjoy the benefits of their labor–that no one will be able to steal collective products out from under the producers. It is a key element of a sort of social contract that binds people together who want to work on a particular project. But
once this social contract is created, there is no way to change it short of giving a single sovereign entity, in Hobbes’ terms a leviathan, the authority to speak for the whole. It is, again, the nature of open content communities to leave as much control as possible in the hands of the contributors and not their organizers; that open and bottom-up nature is what makes such communities so productive, after all.

Some such fundamental principles might explain why we find ourselves in this situation–where we would like to be able to change the license, but we can’t. Ultimately, it’s because changing the license requires that an entity different than each of us, individually, enters in the social contract, so that we are no longer an relevant party to it, at least when it comes to the legal defense of our work. But then there is a special coordination problem: it is impossible to get a large body of people all to agree to a change.

This is a nice theory, I suppose, but it sounds like a “just-so story” to me. I think that a group of people probably could be justified in changing their license, even over the objections of a few. And I doubt this would necessarily entail the creation of a Hobbesian leviathan that would remove “the sovereignty of the people.”

I just don’t see a legal model of making a license change without in effect making the distributor of the content into a licensor as well. That is the power that, for example, I think the Wikimedia Foundation has, rightly or wrongly, had to take upon itself.

There are, I think, only two ways to allow future online collaborative communities to have the right to change their licenses. First, they (in effect) empower their organizers to make these decisions, or, second, they change the whole legal paradigm associated with collaborative open content communities. Practically, I think this would require federal legislation and, possibly, international treaties. In time, I think this might happen. As I have recently argued in a speech, I believe that cyber-polities are a new sort of entity in our international civil society. They have unique features and unique needs, and the legal paradigm of “licenses” is woefully inadequate to answer to these features and needs. I suspect–without having perfectly well-developed ideas on the subject–that governments should recognize a new kind of organization, and set up some absolute bare minimum legal ground rules for them. Among other things, such rules would allow society to recognize that an online organization has, in fact, changed its license; they might also allow certain online organizations new categories of tax-exempt status; they might settle a way to create legal proxies for such organizations, if they are needed; and they might create a legal framework for “revolution,” i.e., in which contributors depose their leaders, and society can recognize that this is legitimate. (Suppose a Web project’s managers were all arrested and thrown into prison. Shouldn’t there be a process to put the control of the domain name and servers in the hands of the community–somehow?)

In any event, I may be bold in many ways, but I am not bold enough to claim for the Citizendium Foundation the right to change the Citizendium‘s license. To make such a claim would be simply too daring even for my blood. As far as the community is concerned, we will have to wait for some such new legal paradigm as described above.

B. Our license and license procedure

Without further ado, here are the details of our licensing scheme.

(1) Our license

The Citizendium adopts CC-by-sa 3.0 Unported as the license for our own original collaborative content. This means (among other things) that, if you start a new article for the Citizendium, “from scratch,” then when you press the “Save page” button, you agree irrevocably to license your text using CC-by-sa. I

say “our own original” to exclude articles that originated elsewhere (usually Wikipedia), and I say “collaborative content” to exclude such possible non-collaborative features as “Signed Articles.” The Citizendium will continue to use the GFDL for articles that originated with Wikipedia, at least until such time as

Wikipedia has credibly announced that we may relicense such material under CC-by-sa. We use a variety of other licenses, in addition, for our non-text media.

(2) Reproducing Citizendium content elsewhere

As to articles that originated with the Citizendium, you are free both to reproduce and to further develop them as long as you link from your copy back to the original Citizendium article, and do
so reasonably prominently (no hidden or tiny print). You must also link to a copy of the CC-by-sa license.

As to Citizendium articles that originated on Wikipedia, we expect Wikipedians to credit and link to the relevant Citizendium article if they wish to use content that the Citizendium contributed to those articles. If you are a third party site, you must credit both Wikipedia and the Citizendium for these articles, and note that the applicable license is (again, for now) GFDL, not CC-by-sa.

As to images and other media, and signed articles, consult the license information for the media or article. There are many free images (public domain, CC and GFDL) in our media collection, of course, but you may not simply host wholesale.

In general, you can most easily and safely reproduce the text of our collaborative encyclopedia articles, and all other text content that we have developed collaboratively (which is all of the text of our collaborative encyclopedia articles, and the vast majority of the text on subpages).

(3) Implications for using Wikipedia articles in the Citizendium

Bear in mind that someone who is the only author of some text that is used by Wikipedia in effect relicenses his or her contributions under CC-by-sa, if he or she does not check the “Content is from Wikipedia?” checkbox. Many Citizens have already uploaded their solely-created content without giving credit to Wikipedia. But note that if, in “your” Wikipedia article, even a very small edit was made by another Wikipedian, however, we must give Wikipedia credit and use the GFDL for that article. Unless you produce a version of the article that is entirely your own work, you personally lack the standing to remove the Wikipedia credit and license.

Bear also in mind that we allow people to upload images and some other media under any legal arrangement that permits free access. The most restrictive such arrangement is that you simply give us a permanent right to use your media on the website and any future Foundation publishing projects (which will, of course, be nonprofit); but otherwise you retain all copyrights.

(4) Downloadability

Of course, all of our content can be found and downloaded using any standard Web browser.

For computer programmers who wish to download our content all at once, we have prepared a “database dump” that we will be updating regularly, consistent with usual practice. Non-technical people will find these files useless.

(5) An expectation of support from large reusers

A significant portion of the Citizendium‘s contributors are not comfortable with the idea that their work might be “exploited” by “profiteers,” with no compensation being given to themselves individually or even to the Citizendium Foundation.

Therefore, the Citizendium Foundation advances the proposition that those who succeed in making significant profits from reuse of the Citizendium‘s content are morally–not legally–obligated to share some nontrivial portion of those profits with the project. In other words, while we ask that you share any profits with the project, this remains a well-grounded request and not a requirement.

Of course, we understand that most commercial concerns “know what side their bread is buttered on,” and would naturally voluntarily share some of their profits with a charitable enterprise that makes those profits possible, without our asking them to do so.

(6) An option to legally represent

We may in the future take up the issue whether the Citizendium Foundation should represent the Citizens who have contributed content, in case we would like to sue for violation of our license. Such a lawsuit could be a class action suit. For now, we are setting this issue aside.

C. The grounds for this decision

About choosing the license. Let me explain the grounds on which this decision rests, and in so doing, summarize the arguments given in this paper. I said in the beginning that our highest goal is to provide large amounts of easily accessible and high quality content to the world, and that our main means to this end is to motivate contributors. The other matters are important, but in my experience, really motivated contributors are both a necessary and a sufficient condition for a successful collaborative project. If there aren’t enough motivated contributors, nothing else matters: the project will not survive. But if there are many, then nearly any problem is potentially solvable. That is, I think, the position that the Citizendium finds itself in: we have a lot of motivated contributors, but also a lot of problems to solve; yet I am confident that we will be able to solve them together.

So the really important task that impinges on the choice of license is, as I see it, motivating contributors. But there are some other considerations, as we will see from a review of the arguments. Some might question my authority to make this decision single-handedly; but in that case, I would point to the fact that, when last fall 100 of our most active contributors were polled, there was slightly more support (19.5 of the votes counted) for a commercial license than for a noncommercial license (18.5). It is gratifying that the decision I came to is consistent with the (slight) majority opinion. The fact that it was the majority opinion to support a commercial license also supports the decision.

Why not the GFDL? Since Creative Commons, the Free Software Foundation, and the Wikimedia Foundation have come to an agreement that–they say–will permit the compatibility of Wikipedia’s articles with articles licensed using CC-by-sa, that removes any possible reason we might have for using the GFDL. The GFDL simply was not written for projects like wiki encyclopedias, and while it might have been the best license choice when I recommended it for Wikipedia back in 2001, it is now very far from the best choice today. I might go into more depth about the drawbacks of the GFDL, but others have rehearsed these ad nauseam.

An evaluation of the case for a noncommercial license. Generally, I found the arguments for a noncommercial license very interesting, but not ultimately more compelling than the opposed arguments. The moral argument for a noncommercial license finds something unfair about others profiting on the backs of volunteers. But, upon examination, it became clear that the situation is unfair only if a contributor has not given up the right to compensation. But it is precisely by choosing a commercial license that one might be said to give up the right to compensation. Therefore, it is actually a subtly circular argument to say that a noncommercial license is required by considerations of fairness: it is the choice of license that determines what is fair or not. So the moral argument is not by itself probative: it gains force only if independent reasons can be found in favor of a noncommercial license.

This said, I personally find some force in this moral argument. I might not have been able to articulate this force very well, but I find my head nodding in agreement when people say, “It’s just wrong for corporations to be able to make tidy profits for their owners or shareholders by using free content, without compensating the sources of that content.” But I think it has to do mainly with the size of the operation. Generally, we might say that larger companies owe a special moral debt to public projects that supply the means of their success, in the same way that corporations are thought to have a moral obligation to support the institutions of civil society. For this reason, I have added the section, above, that requests a portion of profits made from the use of Citizendium content.

But why not make compensation a legal requirement? After all, we might get a lot of money that way. One main reason not to make compensation a legal requirement is that it is simply not likely that anyone will earn very much money from the Citizendium as long as it is available for free use by everyone. It will be universally available, and charging for it would be like charging for the air–and that is not a very plausible business model. In addition, there is a very serious problem, namely, that charging a license fee to commercial enterprises would require that the Citizendium both become a licenser of the content (and so ask authors to share their copyright with the Foundation) and that it adopt some democratic method of apportioning out the largess. While neither of these is a fatal blow to the case for a noncommercial license–they only puts the skids on the idea of license fees charged by the Foundation to corporate reusers–they are very significant disadvantages. We ought as much as possible to avoid upsetting our contributors, as seeming to remove their individuals rights would do; and it would be simply prudent not to transform the Citizendium into a nest of political turmoil, as I think would likely happen if budget matters had to be decided democratically. There are other problems as well. In sum, I think we can avoid potentially significant problems, internal and external, if we renounce any authority to charge a license fee for the commercial use of our content.

Besides, we are apt to be supported by significant commercial reusers of our content, even if we don’t require such support. We can ask for support, too, and few enterprises will refuse to support us, if they depend on us. Moreover, a noncommercial license would make it harder for “the little guy”–small blogs and websites and specialist wikis–to use our content. There is no harm, and much to gain, from permitting such use, even when reusers are trying to turn a small profit if only to pay for their expenses.

An evaluation of the case for a commercial license. There are some relatively simplistic arguments for a commercial license (e.g., from the definition of “free”) that I found not particularly persuasive, despite being common.

Much more interesting is the argument from social ownership. The idea here is that strongly collaborative content is not “owned” in any traditional sense, because it is so easy to become a (legal) “co-owner” of a collaborative work, and because such works are tethered only in the most tenuous way to any specific individuals. Without saying exactly what we should make of “social ownership,” we can at least say that collaborative content is held in trust by an organization on behalf of society at large. And since society has commercial interests among others, there is no justification for forbidding commercial use. This is because society at large–including those who might want to use the content commercially–has a right to contribute and augment the material. While interesting, this argument seems to “prove too much”: if it were correct, we ought to conclude that all collaborative projects should be released into the public domain. Moreover, it is question-begging in that it assumes it will always be in society’s best interests to have the freest possible license.

By far the strongest reason in favor of a commercial license, I think, is the argument from maximum reuse. The argument is simple. Most of the rest of the free culture movement uses a commercial license, so this influential overarching community would be more likely to spread our content if we used a commercial license. Moreover, the total number of commercial enterprises that would use our content would surely be higher if we allowed them to use our content without purchasing a license. Finally, the efficiency of access to Citizendium content, and the probability of paper copies being placed in the hands of those without Internet access, would
both be increased if we use a commercial license. In short, if we want to maximize the number of people who benefit from our content, a commercial license is what we should choose.

Moreover, a commercial license avoids some significant incompatibilities. If the problem were simply a matter of explaining and understanding that the project has two different licenses, that would be no problem. After all, we will have two different licenses, namely, the GFDL and CC-by-sa, at least until Wikipedia finalizes its compatibility decision. The problem is that different articles would be licensed using two incompatible licenses, one commercial and the other noncommercial. This makes different Citizendium articles themselves mutually incompatible, which is annoying (at least). It would also make it much less likely that anyone would ever reproduce the entire database of Citizendium articles, preventing maximum reuse (and hence our impact on the world).

You might say, by the way, that we can get rid of these incompatibility problems by not using Wikipedia’s articles at all. Why not just delete them all? As tempting as that might sound at times, we’ve already made the decision to permit their use, and that is an issue we really cannot change at this point.

There were also two issues that go to evaluating the impact of the different licenses on levels of participation. The first may be boiled down to this: while academics in general do not especially know or care about the difference between commercial and noncommercial free licenses, the free culture crowd, which makes up another large constituency, cares deeply and passionately about the difference. We will probably have more disaffected contributors if we choose a noncommercial license than if we choose a commercial one. The second issue concerns the impact of the license on our relationship with Wikipedia; and, in sum, it seems likely that our choosing a commercial license would lead to a more vigorous exchange of contributors between Wikipedia and the Citizendium, something that could help us considerably. There is no good reason to think it will harm us.

A global assessment. On first glance, the case for a noncommercial license seemed to me, as it seemed to many Citizens, very strong. But on careful examination, the reasons for a noncommercial license are uncertain, and some objections to a scheme of license fees are very worrying. By contrast, there are several strong arguments for a commercial license, and adoption of a license compatible with Wikipedia and other open content projects would solve some additional problems that a noncommercial license would impose.

It is also worth looking again at our goals and highest priorities, as explained in the first part of the essay. The arguments above indicate that a commercial license will directly contribute to our top goal, namely, giving the broadest access to vast amounts of high-quality reference content, by removing the legal impediments to free distribution. If the most important means to this goal is motivated contributors, a commercial license is again recommended, because such a license will be attractive to the free culture community and in other respects will help build robust participation. The other arguments are interesting, but not as important as these, which
concern the fundamental conditions of our success.

The proper evaluation of all these arguments is far from obvious, but in my judgment, it falls decidedly in favor of a commercial license. That is why the Citizendium has adopted CC-by-sa as the license for its own collaborative content.

D. About this essay

Apology. I sincerely regret the amount of time it took to produce this essay–I worked on it nearly every day for a month, long after my self-imposed deadline of November 15. Not until it was mostly written did I commit to a position; I wanted to go where I felt the arguments themselves leading. In the process, I have taught myself something very important. I hope the length and attention to detail given here will have taught some readers the same thing. Namely, the issues behind the decision between a commercial and a noncommercial license are extremely complex, and more complex than some people realize, that is, people who tend to
view this as a black-and-white issue. Decent, well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree about this issue. And given its complexity, I cannot possibly pretend to have the last word on it.

I can speak for the Citizendium when it comes to what our license and license procedure are (as explained above). But as to the arguments for the license, I have made extensive efforts to solicit and understand the views of a large variety of Citizens, and also of people outside of the Citizendium, and this essay is a collaborative effort to a great extent. Still, I cannot pretend to be speaking on behalf of anyone but myself in my presentation of the issues, and only I can take the blame for the mistakes in this analysis. I hope only to have presented the most important arguments, in their most compelling versions–although that is itself ambitious, and I doubt I have really done so.

Thanks. I have borrowed many arguments from Citizens. If you spot any brilliant arguments here, they might well be someone else’s.

Most of all, I would like to thank the members of the Ad Hoc Licensing Committee, to which I sent drafts of this essay and whose members provided much invaluable insight. They include Aleta Curry, Stephen Ewen, Mike Johnson, Jitse Niesen, Zachary Pruckowski, and Aleksander Stos. Just to be clear: they do not all agree with me. I deliberately chose people who are active in the project, who evidently care about it, and who wrote very interesting essays (or private comments) on the issue. They also happened to represent an excellent cross-section of Citizen opinion.

Most of the Ad Hoc Licensing Committee wrote essays in response to a call for comments. I would also like to thank Anthony Argyriou, Utkarshraj Atmaram, Tom Kelly, Robert King, Joe Quick, Andrew Su, and Peter Tretter for their helpful essays.

In addition, I would like to thank people who offered valuable comments on the Citizendium Forums, including: Martin Baldwin-Edwards, Anthony DiPierro, David Goodman, Derek Harkness, Carl Hewitt, Matt Innis, Pat Palmer, Richard Jensen, Mark Jones, Russell D. Jones, Tom Kelly, Per Lind, James F. Perry, Hayford Peirce, Geoffrey Plourde, Nereo Preto, Joe Quick, Warren Schudy, Anthony Sebastian, and Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér. Thanks also to some others, who commented on the Citizendium Blog, especially David Gerard and Eugene van der Pijll, but others as well.

Finally, thanks to the members of the Citizendium Executive Committee, who also weighed in and reviewed this document before it was released.

This essay is free to reproduce for noncommercial purposes. I hereby release the copyright over this essay to the Citizendium Foundation, and speaking on behalf of the Foundation, I hereby license the essay under the CC-by-nc-nd 3.0 Unported license. (For the license of the Citizendium, see above.) This means you can reproduce it in any medium if you give me (and the Citizendium Foundation) credit, you don’t use it for commercial purposes, and you don’t make derivative versions of it. This doesn’t mean that we won’t give separate permission to reprint it (or parts of it) for profit, or that we’ll refuse to let you release a derivative version of your own–it’s just that you’ll have to ask our permission.





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