Looong interview with me by Dan Schneider in Cosmoetica

Larry Sanger

Off and on, for the last 2.5 years, I have been answering questions from poet and critic Dan Schneider, who has conducted a series of long, interesting interviews.  My interview, posted a few hours ago, is #27 in the series; Schneider himself gives the interview four stars (out of five).  That should tell you something about the Schneider: he’s the kind of guy who asks questions that take hours and hours to answer, and then has the audacity to rate the answers.  The questions cover my life, Wikipedia, Citizendium, philosophy, and my reactions to various idiosyncratic puzzles that Schneider has come up with.  If you were to ask why I agreed to do an interview that ended up being 40,000 words long, without any compensation or anything, I’d say that I didn’t know it was going to be that long, and Dan Schneider was very persistent.  And maybe this reveals just how vain I really am.

Invitation to collaborate on encyclopedia article

Larry Sanger

Some time ago I started working on a Citizendium article titled, tentatively, “Accelerated early childhood education.”  (Is there a better name for this subject?)  What is the Citizendium, you ask?  It’s a wiki encyclopedia, like that other wiki, but it requires that you use your real name, and there is a low-key guiding role for experts in what is otherwise a free, open collaborative wiki.

So far, my article covers only early reading.  It could be expanded to talk about academic preschools, baby videos, Doman math dots, and various other subjects.  You’ll see that I’ve tried to make the article neutral.  It lacks a lot of essential information and I’m sure it can be greatly improved.  If anybody wants to help out there, that would be wonderful!

It’s not hard to sign up on the Citizendium (which I got started, by the way–but I’m no longer in any leadership role there, I’m just still a fan).  Just go here and sign up.  Somebody should give you authoring permissions within 24 hours.  Then you can edit my article (which will then be our article) or any other article on the system you like.  Or you can start a new one yourself!

Citizendium: A New Vision for Online Knowledge Communities

Larry Sanger

Speech delivered at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan,
Feb. 7, 2008, as part of the College of Arts and Sciences Lecture Series,
“Wikipedia – Democratization of Knowledge or Triumph of Amateurs,” hosted by
Marshall Poe.

Familiar territory

Five or ten years ago, if I were introducing a new wiki encyclopedia project, I would have to argue and explain at great length about the advantages of mass collaboration. And you all would be very skeptical. I would explain how people can come together online from around the world and donate their labor to create something that everyone can access freely, and which is controlled by the contributors themselves. I would have to teach lessons about bottom-up methods and free content. But today, most of you are all firm believers that enormous amounts of reasonably good, if not perfect, content can be created by online communities. Everybody knows what giant online communities can create, because everyone can see the results in Wikipedia, YouTube, and the many other community-built websites.

So my task isn’t to explain everything about how the Citizendium, this new project, works, because in many ways it works similarly to many other Internet community content projects. It is open to everyone–or, everyone willing to work under our rules, anyway. It is built collaboratively, by people working together on a wiki. It is built bottom-up, which means no one is assigning articles, and generally, no one in authority needs to be consulted except when really difficult disputes need to be resolved; instead, the people who make decisions about an article are the people who happen to show up. The resulting content is free, meaning anyone can read and republish it, at will and free of charge. And it is run by a non-profit.

This is familiar territory. It would be boring and banal for me to point out that collaboration on free content represents an interesting opportunity. Of course it does. The Internet has been exploiting that opportunity for almost ten years, at least ever since the Open Directory Project got started in 1998. The real question is whether there are any interesting new free content opportunities. And there is, I think. The most interesting unexploited opportunity before the Internet today is high quality and high relevance. In short, if developing sheer quantity of content was the big exciting problem ten years ago, we’ve licked that one. The big exciting problem now is quality: how to create enormous amounts of high-quality and highly-relevant content. And this is–I guarantee it–a much more difficult problem, and one that not nearly as many online projects will be able to solve.

The problem of quality and relevance

This is a problem that just cannot be solved by “more of the same.” For example, simply throwing more people at the problem of quality will not solve it, for the simple reason that many people do poor quality work in the existing community content systems. Simply look at the results that come up from a typical Google search. It is estimated that there are over one billion people online now. If number of people were the answer to the problem of high quality, wouldn’t we have a brilliantly pristine Internet? But, of course, we don’t. Instead, the Internet reflects a wonderfully diverse humanity, from the lows of porn websites on up to professionally edited, highly interesting content collections, written by some of the most brilliant minds. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I think that, for example, Wikipedia is very useful, and the contributions of hundreds of thousands of amateurs is crucial to its usefulness. But there is a big difference between being highly useful, on the one hand, and of really high quality, on the other.

The problem of quality and relevance won’t be solved by more of the same. You could make projects even more free–you could release them into the public domain, instead of using a Creative Commons license. But this would not solve the quality problem. And again, you could make projects as wonderfully collaborative as you want–even more collaborative than Wikipedia is now–but that still wouldn’t help establish reliability or relevance.

Three principles

Clearly, something really important has been left out of the Web 2.0 equation. What? What needs to be added so that our communities produce content that is not merely abundant, useful, and interesting, but also reliable and relevant?

I have three principles, which I will state briefly first but then elaborate, because it is very easy to misunderstand in all three cases. They are:

  1. Find a meaningful role for experts within the project.
  2. Require contributors to use their real-world identities.
  3. Establish the rule of law by committing contributors to a social contract that makes them full partners in the project.

Adopting these three principles will help transform Web 2.0 into Web 3.0. Leveraged intelligently, these principles will allow an online community to produce high quality and relevance, without necessarily compromising high productivity. They will, in short, help the Internet to grow up.

Let’s consider these principles each briefly in turn.

A role for experts in open projects

First, experts are needed to play meaningful roles, in short, because only they can be counted on to recognize when some content represents the latest expert knowledge. Amateurs and dilettantes are sometimes perfectly capable of creating excellent and reliable material on many subjects, especially if they’re good writers and researchers; but they are inconsistent in doing so, and they generally lack the expert’s ability to judge when some content actually represents the latest expert opinion on a subject. It seems obvious that the intelligent use of experts in a collaborative project can help to improve the quality of the output.

To this there are some common reactions, which I want to address directly, though I don’t have time to do them justice.

Whenever I suggest that experts need a place in some online communities, one of the first things someone says in reply is that there’s no way to tell who the experts are. But I find this very puzzling. Society has many ways to identify experts. And not all of them are jokes! There are even better ways than “a person from out of town with slides.” To identify its expert editors, the Citizendium asks people to send a CV and we have certain objective criteria, such as terminal degrees and publishing, and other relevant evidence of expertise.

A second thing that people often imply, or assume, is that if one makes a place for experts, that will make the community a top-down, command-and-control system, which is a step backwards. Now, I fully admit that professionals of all sorts have a bit of a fetish for hierarchy and bureaucracy. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot participate in a relatively flat, bottom-up community. And this is what the Citizendium does. Our editors have the general authority to make decisions about articles, but they rarely “pull rank.” They can also approve articles. Neither of these functions compromises the bottom-up, collaborative, productive nature of the project.

Third, there is the confused thought, which is alarmingly common, that the very concept of expertise is somehow passe, and that experts have been somehow rendered unnecessary in a world that could produce Wikipedia. This sentiment is very confused, as I say. It stems from the insight that the open source community, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and so forth have all been able to produce enormous amounts of interesting, useful stuff–all without experts. This is actually incorrect. All of those Internet projects have produced interesting, useful content in part because they have experts who are comfortable working in a perfectly open system. What is true is that those projects generally do not have expert supervisors, people chosen specifically because they are qualified to manage content of a certain type. But more importantly, the mere fact that interesting, useful content can be created without expert supervision simply doesn’t mean that humanity can’t do any better. It is very obvious to me that can do better than Wikipedia, YouTube, and all the rest.

Why real names

The second of the three principles I stated above is that we should require contributors to use their real-world identities. In other words, when you contribute to a project, you can’t call yourself “hipster45”; you have to use your own real name and identity. You can’t lie about who you are. I don’t say that this is necessary for every Internet community. After all, there are some people who will simply never contribute under their own identities, because they are concerned about privacy matters; or they don’t want to be embarrassed later by their bad behavior online. Sometimes it might be better not to require the use of real-world identities. I admit that.

But in the case of strongly collaborative knowledge community like the Citizendium, it makes good sense to require real names. There are at least three reasons. First, it improves the credibility of the output: people can see who contributed some content, and whether they appear to know anything about the subject. Second, by making people take real-world personal responsibility for their contributions, it becomes possible to enforce rules. When problem contributors can make up a new pseudonym as soon as they get out of line, this makes it in principle impossible to enforce rules effectively. But if you can enforce rules effectively, you can do the work of a project a lot more efficiently. Third, people do tend to behave themselves better when their identities are known and their behavior is out in the open, and good behavior is crucial to a smoothly running knowledge community.

Again, however, there are some common objections to the principle that I want to address. Some people assume that I think there should never be anonymity online. That is simply wrong; I think that anonymity is one of the great advantages of the Internet, actually, and I believe it reinforces the value of free speech. I merely think that, in knowledge communities like the Citizendium, the advantages of requiring real names strongly outweighs the advantages of permitting pseudonyms.

Some might find it unusual that I would claim that the advantage lies in requiring real names. After all, one might well point out that many people will never contribute to the Citizendium simply because we do require real names. And I do have to admit that there are probably quite a few people involved in Wikipedia who will never get involved in the Citizendium precisely because they can’t use a pseudonym. How do I respond to that?

Well, I have no data to back me up on this, of course, because it is speculative, but I think that in the long run, there will be more people willing to work as identified, responsible members of an Internet community connected to the real world, than as unidentified avatars, disconnected from the real world. In fact, in the long run, I think there could be more people who will insist on a real names requirement, precisely because it makes the community more mature, and those who use their real names are not at an disadvantage to those who use fake names.

There are also some understandable questions about how we can manage to confirm a person’s real name on the Internet. I don’t have time to go into that in great detail, but suffice it to say that we merely require some proof. We don’t pretend to have an fallible system, which I would think would be impossible to have while remaining truly open and efficient. But so far, very, very few contributors have been exposed as having used an unregistered pseudonym.

The rule of law in online communities

Now to the third principle. Anyone who has spent a lot of time working in online communities is familiar with certain types of problematic characters and certain patterns of bad behavior. Governance of online communities, according to Internet scholar Clay Shirky, is a “certified hard problem.” I agree. But what makes it hard is that such communities are generally volunteer communities of equals, and in such communities, it is hard to get buy-in from participants for resting some decisionmaking authority in anyone’s hands. I actually think that this is a problem about the Internet’s radical egalitarianism. As political philosophers sometimes observe, if you take egalitarianism to an extreme, you’ve got anarchy. After all, if everyone is supposed to be totally equal, they should all be equal in power; and that means that no one can be a decisionmaking authority, because the decisionmaking authority would have more power than the average person.

Well, I don’t mean to go into that, as much as I’d like to. I only wanted to bring up that subject to explain why I think it is so important that online communities adopt constitutions, as it were, just as real, offline communities do. If you think about it, it is bizarre that online communities don’t demand this more often, just as offline communities do. Of course, there are many online communities that announce basic ground rules in advance–especially listservs (mailing list discussions).

I think that online communities should go beyond basic ground rules. I think they should require their members to sign onto the rules explicitly, and then give the members a key stake in the governance of the project. In my experience, giving members an active stake in governance gets them personally invested, and great things can result.

But this isn’t how many Web 2.0 projects work. Many of them are actually for-profit businesses that essentially exploit their contributors. This has struck me increasingly as a very strange and morally problematic situation. I think that we could be accomplishing a great deal more, and potentially avoid many abuses that plague MySpace and YouTube, if there were mature community governance. But probably, the owners of such websites would not stand for it.

How these principles are interrelated

These might appear to you to be three unrelated principles, but they are in fact closely related and mutually supporting, and together they represent a different vision of what online communities should look like.

I’ve found that it’s very difficult to get experts involved in open projects. Experts generally tend not to take a venue seriously unless it is closed and exclusive. I do note that Wikipedia has had a fair bit of expert involvement, largely owing to the broad influence that it has a resource, being #8 in the Alexa rankings. But I also note that they tend not to stick around for very long. Most experts are not going to stay involved in an open project if their views are not respected, and frankly, their views aren’t going to be respected unless it is a project policy that their views be respected. That’s because most people simply assume that online communities are perfectly egalitarian, and no special consideration should to be given to expertise. So that’s the first principle: respect expertise.

But if there is to be a policy that in some way requires respect of expert knowledge, there has to be an effective way to enforce that policy. So the project first needs to secure the support of participants for the policy, or it will be unenforceable. An excellent way to secure support for basic policies is to require participants to sign onto an explicit “social contract”–that’s the third principle.

Some people will go to surprising lengths to disrupt a project–it’s literally a hobby for them–if they can hide behind anonymity or pseudonymity. So it isn’t enough to get people to say, “I agree with your fundamental policies.” The very most disruptive people will say they agree, and then proceed to get the whole community up in arms; some people just thrive on chaos that way. If you attempt to ban such people from the community, but anonymity is allowed, they can and, in some communities, do return–and commit the same offenses all over again. This basically means that anonymity makes it impossible to enforce rules effectively. So if you want to have fundamental rules at all, if you want to have the rule of law, you must require people to reveal their identities, at least to project organizers. That’s the second principle.

The growing opportunity

Let’s take a step back. Imagine what a successful online community that adopts these three principles would look like. It could still be radically collaborative, bottom-up, free, dynamic, and productive. But it would also welcome experts and give them the credit due to their long years of study and experience. They need not bark orders; they could work alongside the rank-and-file contributors and act as guides rather than as top-down managers. As a result, the quality of the content could be expected to be considerably more reliable, or at least considerably more faithful to the latest expert knowledge, than the typical Web 2.0 project.

Not only would content be more reliable in this way, it would also be more credible. That is because people would be required to use their own real names, and content that comes with a name attached is for that reason at least slightly more credible. I’m sure you all remember the hubbub that the “WikiScanner” caused. For a month or so there was story after story about how different corporations and politicians had removed all negative information about them
from Wikipedia. That of course was a result of Wikipedia’s anonymity policy. Well, imagine a more reliable wiki encyclopedia that required people to take responsibility for their additions–and their deletions. The sort of abuses that are epidemic in Wikipedia would be much less likely to happen in the new sort of project.

Finally, consider the community from the point of view of the participants. With gentle guidance from experts and their relative maturity, with the requirement of real names, and with the requirement that people agree to the basic project rules, the community that results can be expected to be much cooler, calmer, and saner. I think of this new sort of community like a friendly, open county fair with expert judges, where many older-style communities resemble a street fight between rival gangs, or a free-for-all barroom brawl.

The new sort of online community I’ve described is a significant opportunity, as I see it–it is the next step in the development, or the maturation, of the Internet. I think in another ten years, this will be regarded by most people as the only sensible sort of online community, at least for knowledge projects.

The Citizendium experience so far

This is the opportunity that the Citizendium project leverages. We employ all three principles. So, of course, you might be interested to know how we’re doing. I will conclude by giving you a progress report.

First, I should clarify that we are open to virtually everyone who is willing to work under our rules. If you give us your real name, convincing evidence of who you are, a coherent brief biography about yourself, and you agree with our fundamental policies, then you’re in. We have something like 250 editors and over 2,000 authors registered.

A private pilot project got started in November 2006, and we opened the project up to public viewing and broader participation in March 2007, a little less than a year ago. While thousands of people have created accounts, each month over 200 people edit the wiki, and on any given day you can expect to see 40 different people, who we call Citizens, on the wiki. These Citizens are all named, so that when you examine the Citizendium recent changes page, you see nothing but real names. To someone familiar with regular wikis, this is a very unusual and refreshing sight.

By various measures, our rate of production has been increasing, which is to say that production is accelerating. One way of measuring production is the rate at which new articles are created. A year ago, we were creating about five new articles per day; now we’re up to 15 per day, and we’re on a decided upward trend. We also added, in our first year, over five million words. That is more words than Wikipedia produced in its first year.

And how many articles? Because some people have uploaded articles from Wikipedia without working on them, we don’t take credit for those. We take credit only for those articles that we have started ourselves, which is most of them, and articles to which we’ve made significant changes. Well, we have 5,200 articles under development, and we added our most recent 2,000 articles in about the last three months. So we are definitely accelerating.

In all honesty, we aren’t doing so well approving new articles; we only have about 50 approved articles. I think this is mostly because our editors are more interested in working on new articles than approving old ones. I also think we can make our article approval process much more efficient, and that’s something I hope to organize soon, if no one else does.

So much for our productivity. What about our community? What’s our quality of life, so to speak? Well, here, I think we really shine. Outside of a short time last year in which we experimented with self-enrollment, we have had virtually no vandalism. That’s right, despite being as productive and open as it is, the Citizendium is basically vandalism-free.

As can be expected in any community, online or offline, the Citizendium community has its share of personal unpleasantness. But typically I find people interacting politely and reasonably pleasantly, even when they are disagreeing. I also find very little indeed of what I used to describe on Wikipedia as “trolling”–in other words, hardly anyone ever appears to be disrupting the community just for the sake of doing so, or just to call attention to himself.

There are many developments I lack the time to tell you about, but I’d like to highlight one in particular, because it applies to the university context. Last semester we started a project called “Eduzendium.” Essentially, we’re inviting college instructors to assign their students Citizendium articles for class assignments. The students get extra help from the Citizendium community with their articles, and are motivated to do a good job not only because their work is visible publicly, but because it will actually be of good use to the whole world. Instructors get a new assignment type in their repertoire. And the Citizendium benefits, of course, from the added activity and content. Well, last semester we had courses at Purdue and the University of the Witwatersrand (in South Africa), and others. This semester, larger classes at University of Colorado, Temple University, and CUNY are engaged in the program. I think the Eduzendium project will inevitably expand, and in a few more years actually become a large source of our content.

Well, that’s my report. I think we’re doing very well for being about a year old. If we continue to accelerate our growth, you can expect us to be have over 100,000 articles within a few years.

So, why don’t you help us toward that goal? I would like to conclude by inviting you all, everyone in this audience, to join the Citizendium and start a new article tomorrow.

Thank you very much.


An explanation of the Citizendium license

Larry Sanger

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–answers.com is probably the best known.

But Wikipedia content is probably not making any of its republishers rich. (For one thing, answers.com 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 citizendium.org 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 answers.com (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, citizendium.org, 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 citizendium.org 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 citizendium.org. 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.

The Citizendium one year on: a strong start and an amazing future

Larry Sanger

It’s been exactly one year since work on the Citizendium wiki started ramping up.  I said then that I was properly skeptical about our chances and that the project was experimental.  Well, no longer.  Now it’s time to report the results of the experiment: we’ve made a very strong start and an amazing future likely lies ahead of us.

In the first several weeks of the Citizendium‘s existence, the project’s chances were dismissed by the likes of TechCrunch‘s Marshall Kirkpatrick, BoingBoing‘s Cory Doctorow, and Clay Shirky–among others.  A lot of such Web 2.0 cognoscenti weren’t just skeptical; they clearly disliked the idea itself.  It sounded too elitist for their taste.  (But we ain’t elitist, really.)  It completely upset their notions of what Web communities are supposed to be like.  As Kirkpatrick put it, “Does the world need a Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds?”

We shrugged and got to work demonstrating a better wiki model.  It launched publicly last March, boosted by an Associated Press story and other press coverage.  And as it turns out, a year after the pilot wiki was started, the project is actually exciting and refreshing–so that, increasingly and ironically, it is the received wisdom of the digerati that is looking dogmatic and hidebound.

Debunking some myths

There are some myths about the Citizendium floating around that might be keeping some people from getting involved.  We can’t have that–so let’s debunk those myths.

Myth: it’s too hard to get on board the Citizendium. There’s a long and complicated application process.

In fact, it’s now simple and automated.  You fill out a short Web form, then a human being (a “constable”) will respond–with a “yes” in the vast majority of cases–within a few hours, sometimes minutes.  All the constable has to do is press a button, and you’re in.

Myth: the Citizendium is experts-only; it’s an elitist project.

Outrageously false.  How many times do we have to say this?  We ain’t elitist.  This myth does a huge disservice to the project, because it leads “non-experts” to think that the project isn’t open to them.  It is.  In fact, we have roles for the general public, which may become authors, as well as for experts, which may become editors.  They work together very well every day in an open, bottom-up wiki project.  If you didn’t know that was possible, we’re here to show you that it is.

Here’s a hint: just because we have a role for experts, it does not follow that the Citizendium is experts-only or elitist.  Particularly in an encyclopedia project, a role for experts isn’t elitist, it’s merely good sense!

Myth: the Citizendium is simply a revival of the failed Nupedia project.

Ridiculously false.  The only significant similarities that the project has to Nupedia are that we have a role for experts, and that we require contributors to use their real names.  But the differences are huge.  We are a cutting-edge, grassroots, open wiki, and we feature instant publishing; Nupedia had a fairly old-fashioned, top-down seven-step publishing process.  Anyone can start an article on Citizendium; articles had to be assigned by Nupedia editors.  After a year, we have over 3,200 “live” articles [Nov. 20, three weeks later: now 3,900] and nearly 5 million words; after a year, Nupedia had a few dozen articles.

The Citizendium was started with intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of both Nupedia and Wikipedia, by the person who engineered both of those systems.  Why on Earth would I revive failed systems?

Myth: the Citizendium uses old-fashioned, top-down editorial control, so it is going nowhere.  We can safely ignore it.

Wrong.  As much as some critics might wish this were true, it isn’t.  The Citizendium is very much open and bottom-up and, as a result, it will become harder and harder to ignore, as our growth accelerates in the next year.

There is a crucial difference between the Citizendium and other expert wiki encyclopedia projects that have started recently, like Scholarpedia and the Encyclopedia of Earth: we invite the general public, we make no work assignments, and our progress, warts and all, is highly visible.  The fact that we require real names and that we have a role for experts doesn’t change that!

Not only have we grown nicely in our first year, our growth is accelerating.  With nearly 5 million words and over 3,200 articles, we have tripled our article count since the conclusion of our pilot project last spring–and that is despite a predictable summer slowdown, and without the benefit of many press or blog mentions, as we had in our first six months.  In the fall, predictably, activity has started heating up again, and without any help from the press this time.

We have doubled our rate of article creation, from 7 to 14 per day, in the last 100 days, and quadrupled it since January.  [Nov. 20, three weeks later: rate in the last month has been over 20/day.]   This rate is almost certain to continue growing, because we have started a (so far very effective) recruitment push.  More people, more articles.

In short, not only have we been growing steadily, our growth is accelerating.  For more, see “The coming explosion,” below.

Myth: who cares?  Even if the Citizendium is growing, there’s still no point to it.  Wikipedia has already won.  Nobody can catch up.

This unfortunate attitude is confused on many levels.  Suppose we had said that about Encyclopedia Britannica when we were starting Wikipedia?

There’s no doubting Wikipedia’s present popularity and dominance, and we don’t begrudge them their successes.  But those successes do not mean there is no point to the Citizendium. After all, most importantly, we are rapidly ramping up to a level of reliability that, without an expert approval system and a more responsible governance system, Wikipedia will never be able to achieve..

Moreover, it is hardly as if Wikipedia’s popularity means the Citizendium cannot find many able contributors; there are already many people at work on the Citizendium who simply would not consider working on Wikipedia.  The world is big enough to sustain two general encyclopedia projects.  The existence of one popular resource does not make all other resources pointless.

Finally, there is no good reason to think that the Citizendium will not grow at accelerating rates and, in time, have millions of articles itself.  Again, see below.  Moreover, I think that our model will prove to be far more attractive to more people than Wikipedia’s.  I will not be at all surprised if, after some years, there are more active Citizens than Wikipedians.

Myth: the Citizendium has only 3,200 articles after one year.  This is a sign of failure, because Wikipedia had 20,000 after its first year.

There are several reasons why this is a faulty inference and comparison.

First, the first six months of the project were a private pilot project.  Wikipedia had no such pilot project.  So, a more meaningful comparison might be made in March 2008, after the Citizendium had been publicly launched for one year.  By then, I suspect we’ll have something like 6-7,000 articles.

Second, our average article length is 1,173 words, while our median article length is 476 words–fairly substantial.  I don’t have the statistics on what the typical number of words in Wikipedia articles was in 2001, but I do know it was substantially fewer. I suspect you can triple our article count if you want to use article count to compare our amount of content to Wikipedia in 2001.  I believe we also have many more images and other kinds of content than Wikipedia did in 2001.

Third, throughout our first year, it usually took at least 24 hours to get people on board.  But we’ve just added an automatic account approval system.  Getting on board is still not instant, but usually, accounts are approved within a few hours of being requested–and new people are contributing more, as a result.  This alone will accelerate our growth.

Fourth, our articles are far better quality than Wikipedia’s were, and many of our articles are already better than Wikipedia’s articles at present.  Here there is no contest whatsoever.  This, I hope you’ll agree, counts for something.

Myth: learning how to edit the Citizendium, like all wikis, is too complicated for my poor, nontechnical brain.

Wikis aren’t nearly as complicated as they might seem.  “Wikiwiki” means “fast” in Hawaiian–wikis are fast to edit, fast to update, and fast to learn.  All you have to do is get in the system, go to the page you want to edit (or if you want to start a new page, check out the easy way), and start writing your brilliant prose, just as you would an e-mail.  That is really all you need to know, to get started.  Really!  The rest you can learn “by osmosis” and in bits and pieces.  No one requires you to be a Wiki Master.  Some of us find Wiki Masters slightly annoying anyway–they’re always fiddling with arcane code, and not adding content.  We prefer the content.  For that, no arcane code is needed.  It really is easy to dive in!

(Just kidding, you Wiki Masters.  We need you, badly, too.)

What we have demonstrated in our first year

We’re doing well.

We have pioneered a way to use wikis that is new and importantly different.  Even more striking is the fact that ours is perhaps the best model yet for using wikis.  A lot of people don’t realize this yet.  But they will–just wait–because this is all under-reported news.  Consider what we have demonstrated already:

An expert-public hybrid wiki leads to high quality.

We ask experts and the public to work together in an open collaborative project, and as a result, we’ve produced many long, meaty articles–in just one year.  (Nearly 5 million words.)

A role for experts is consistent with solid growth, even on a wiki.

A project that asks experts to work side-by-side with the general public can survive, grow, and even accelerate its growth.  Making a meaningful role for experts in an open project really is a viable option for Web 2.0 communities, as I thought it would be.  That’s news!

Requiring real identities is consistent with solid growth, even on a wiki.

A wiki that requires real names can grow nicely and even accelerate.  Requiring real identities will not, in fact, doom an open online community to failure.  Actually, it’s nice to know who you’re working with.

Eliminating anonymity eliminates a lot of “funny business.”

Just as one would suspect, eliminating anonymous and pseudonymous contribution goes a very long way to preventing vandalism, uncivil behavior, and trolling.  We have had virtually none.  Yes, you read that right.  That’s news, too.

It’s possible to enforce behavioral rules on an open wiki effectively.  Imagine that!

Taking basic behavioral rules–like no personal insults–seriously, and putting rules enforcement in the hands of relatively mature, educated people, tends to make it easy to deal with disruption when it does occur.  Hooray for our constables!

Signing a social contract reduces distractions.

Requiring that contributors “sign” an explicit social contract greatly reduces pointless debates with people who would argue for a radically different version of the project, allowing contributors to focus on “live issues” (not dead ones).

Parliamentary procedure can be digitized.

The Citizendium Editorial Council has passed six resolutions according to a version of parliamentary procedure that makes use of a mailing list, wiki, and Web forum.  As far as we know, this is unprecedented and has many interesting potential applications.  (We want to automate this, though–we’re looking for someone who can code it up.)

Subpages can be used to organize a variety of info types.

We conceive of our purpose as extending beyond purely encyclopedic information into reference information of all sorts.  We are organizing various kind of reference info logically on “subpages,” with all the subpages on a given topic making up one big “cluster.”  For an example, see our Biology article (click the green “tabs” at the top of the page).  We’ve only just started with this–but so far, so good.

We’ve also had some accomplishments that aren’t exactly pathbreaking, but they’re still worth bragging about:

Nonprofit Web 2.0 projects can be started on a shoestring.

When we made the announcement of the Citizendium and secured the use of our first server free of charge from Steadfast Networks, we had a $0 budget.  We bootstrapped everything into existence.  Perhaps some people need reminding that large, active Web 2.0 projects don’t necessarily require a huge amount of money and a half-dozen strategists.  We have gotten by with one full-time employee (me) and $40,000.  But it helps that I’ve been supported via speaking and writing fees, and frankly, we do need more money.  (More on that later.)

Many people are willing to support this sort of project with their labor.

If you needed proof that there are many people who are willing to put in many hours on a project like the Citizendium, then look at this post on the Citizendium-L mailing list.  There, I thank dozens of people for their contributions and a number of organizations for their support.

Our new initiatives

But enough boasting.  Other than the usual plugging away, what are are we doing now?

Subpages. While we are still focused first and foremost on encyclopedia articles, we have opened our doors to other sorts of reference information, which we place on “subpages.”  For an example, see New York City.  The Citizendium‘s subpages include the information normally found on good encyclopedia articles, such as Related Articles (example: civil society), Bibliography (example: Harry S. Truman), and External Links (example: airship), but in the fullness of time will include further bibliographic material (example: filmography of Joe Louis), almanac-like catalogs or lists of data (example: famous tennis players), image galleries (example: linguistics), timelines (example: Tony Blair), and more.

Core Articles. For each of around 35 workgroup subjects, we are now making lists of 99 (or 198) top-priority articles to write.  We’re specifically inviting people to come and start those articles, and have even started awarding “points” (redeemable for bragging rights).  We’ve only recently started this initiative, but it’s growing  steadily.  (Why not have a look and see if you’re inspired to write about one of those topics?)

Recruitment. We’ve just started getting the word out about the Citizendium–we’ve sent calls for participation to only 10 mailing lists (recently).  Believe it or not, virtually all of our growth has been as a result of press coverage.  We have done very little of the sort of digital recruitment we used to get Nupedia and Wikipedia going.  Well, now that we have an automated registration system, we can handle a lot more applications.  So we’ve finally started seriously inviting them.

Eduzendium. The Citizendium is the perfect venue for professors who want their students to do public writing.  It’s perfect because most topics are wide open, and the project is managed in a way that will appeal to most professors. Already, we have had a half-dozen or more articles contributed by students of Citizendium editors, as part of course assignments.  We hope to do serious recruitment for the program later this year and next year.

Fundraiser. In November and December 2007 we’ll be doing a fundraiser.  Our goal is $10,000.  Please help us toward this goal! We hope to raise much more than that, and we know we might raise less–but we have not in fact done any fundraisers since an aborted effort in January 2007.  We badly need help from a full-time technical guru, and our full-time Editor-in-Chief (yours truly) is at the moment an unpaid volunteer, just like everyone else.  (My little family living off of my writing and speaking income, but this isn’t much.)

Short-term plans

Within the next several months, we have a lot to do indeed.

Adoption of new license. The Citizendium will, finally, adopt a license (GFDL, CC-by-sa, or CC-by-nc-sa).  A number of essays have been submitted to help us decide.  We’ve set November 15 as the deadline for making the decision.

Governance solidification and regularization. Further development of many governance policies has been “on hold,” as we have focused on other things.  At the same time that these policies are developed or reworked, we will do a “changing of the guard,” meaning that people in positions of responsibility in the project may move about.  For example, our Editorial Council is likely to impose a requirement of a minimum number of edits in order to participate in the Council, and then several editors will exit and several newer editors will join.  To take another example, we will be establishing a Judicial Board.

Expansion of subpages. We’ve got a fairly elaborate plan for expanding and maturing the use of subpages on the Citizendium.

Advisory Board and Board of Directors. The Citizendium Statement of Fundamental Policies provides that the Editor-in-Chief will appoint an Advisory Board which will approve a binding community charter as well the first Board of Directors.  I hope to choose the Advisory Board by the end of the year.

Adoption of a Citizendium Charter. Shortly thereafter, my main task will be to draft the Citizendium Charter, with input from the entire community.  (No draft yet exists.)  This will supersede the Statement of Fundamental Policies.

Launch SharedKnowing (a mailing list). While this discussion-and-announcement list is hosted by the Citizendium, it is a distinct service, and non-Citizens are welcome to join the list.  It is devoted to “Well-reasoned, polite discussion of the nature of online knowledge production communities, with special but not exclusive focus on community policy (production, governance, management) questions; ‘the new politics of knowledge’ broadly speaking. Though participation is by no means restricted to philosophers, we would like the list to have a more theoretical or philosophical focus, as opposed to being concerned with the specific minutia of specific communities (such as Wikipedia).”

Longer-term plans

In 2008 and 2009, what do we hope to do, in addition to growing at an accelerating rate?

Major MediaWiki improvements. We badly need to make several improvements to our system.  One way or another–either through donations or with help from a technology partner–we hope to dig into these improvements next year.  For example:

  • Convert the subpage-and-metadata system we’ve recently added to a built-in system.  This will allow people to change large amounts of metadata–and even do things like rate articles–by simply filling out a form.
  • Build in the workgroup apparatus into the wiki system.
  • Create a one-click article approval system, as well as a way to solicit approval or comments from the right editors quickly and automatically.
  • Create an account management system that allows people to subscribe and unsubscribe to project mailing lists from one spot, manage various kinds of reminders, and designate themselves as “active” or “inactive,” etc.
  • Convert our talk pages into threaded forums.
  • Add a public feedback system.  There has been some demand for this, but it’s a non-trivial request.
  • Display “thank you” messages from donors at the bottom of every page in proportion to the amount (and recency) the donor has given.

Search for technology partner? If we do not soon receive sufficient funding to enable us to make the significant changes to MediaWiki that really need to be made, we might invite a special relationship with a technology company.  It seems likely that, if we achieve the success we hope for, the wiki software as configured for the Citizendium will be in some demand.  This could motivate a technology firm to supply us with the coding hours needed to make all the changes that we need to make; they then become the key service provider for the Citizendium configuration of MediaWiki.

The Citizendium in other languages. Because an online republic actually requires a mature governance framework and an editor-in-chief, starting the Citizendium in other languages will not be very easy.  Still, it is something that we are committed to doing, or helping with, at least.  We will probably not have time to devote to this until 2008, however.  It will require considerable time and attention from the Editor-in-Chief and the new Board of Directors.

Independence from the Tides Center. In December 2006, the Citizendium Foundation joined the non-profit Tides Center as one of their projects.  We did this only because Tides enabled us to accept donations immediately and assisted with administrative (office) details.  However, this is a temporary arrangement.  We wish to be our own, completely independent 501(c)(3) non-profit.  We will make time to do this once our Board of Directors is in place.

Launch new projects. In 2008 or 2009, I will turn toward other, brand new content production projects on behalf of the Citizendium Foundation and integrated (as much as possible) with the Citizendium wiki.

Sanger turns to fundraising. At some point in 2008 or 2009, I will move away from active management of the wiki–which at this point still seems necessary–and use more of my time for fundraising.  Given our fundamentals and success so far, I feel confident that we could be raising hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.  I worked on the project itself, however, to make sure that there is something to raise money for. I don’t regret the decision, despite our having a very small budget indeed!–Of course, if we have funds to hire a professional development director, I may not have to do this.

New editor-in-chief when funds are located. Finally, in 2008 or 2009, consistently with the promise I made when first launching the project, I will step down as Editor-in-Chief and help guarantee the start of a regular, rule-governed, meaningful transition of management.  I want this position to be reasonably well-funded, however.

The coming explosion of growth

I want to make a prediction about the next year.  At some point, possibly very soon, the Citizendium will grow explosively–say, quadruple the number of its active contributors, or even grow by an order of magnitude.  And it will experience that growth over the course of a month or two, and its growth will continue to accelerate from that higher rate.  Yeah, maybe this is a little wishful thinking of my own.  But there is actually good reason to expect this; I am not merely trying to make a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Let me explain why it’s reasonable to expect explosive growth in the not-too-distant future.

First, many people now know about us, but are watching and waiting before they get involved.  They’re not early adopters; they’ll join only after we’re more proven or popular.  There are a lot of people who were motivated to make accounts (we have well over 2,000 “CZ Authors”), but very many haven’t been actually motivated to start seriously editing the wiki.  (Over 200 accounts are used to make edits every month.)  I regularly find people online who say, “I support what you’re doing, it looks neat, maybe I’ll get involved, but…”

But what?  But they’re not convinced we’re a going concern, of course.  Why should they contribute to the Citizendium if it’s always going to be small and unimportant?

This leads me to my second point. We will soon have developed to the point where a bunch of people can, all at once, prove to each other that the Citizendium is something really exciting.  The Internet is famously subject to “crowd” phenomena.  A news story, an endorsement from a famous person, or something more mysterious can cause massive migration to a new Web project–especially if there is an unfulfilled need for it.  When that happens, there is a sudden spike in activity–and those involved can observe the spike, and if the fundamentals are solid, that will feed on itself and lead to sustained growth.

Well, our fundamentals are extremely solid.  There is an unfulfilled need for an expert-guided, open, free encyclopedia under responsible management.  A huge number of people know about us, and they just need a little push to get involved.  When enough of them do, we will reach a tipping point–our visible growth will cause an avalanche of interest among our inactive supporters, who will then be convinced that, indeed, we really are a going concern.  And worth contributing to.

We’re close to such a tipping point now, I think.  Here’s a push, then.

The rate at which we have started new articles has actually tripled since January and doubled since July (the last 100 days).  In mid-January, just when we “un-forked,” we were adding just 4.3 articles per day; in mid-July, we were at 7; and by mid-October we reached 14. We have tripled our creation rate since January and doubled it since July.

To put it simply, we aren’t just growing; our growth is accelerating.

(Technical note: it is actually difficult to say precisely what our growth rate has been.  The total number of articles, including ones that are not “live,” is currently 4,070, and the above growth rates include the growth rates for all of these, not just live articles. But the growth rate of live articles is probably even higher, because I think over the course of 2007, we have imported fewer and fewer unimproved Wikipedia articles.  Anyway, the increase in growth rate for “live” articles is also very probably close to 300% since January and 200% since July.)

Suppose that we continue to accelerate our growth.  This is not unreasonable.  The only question is how quickly we will accelerate.  If we were to continue to triple our article count each year, then we would break 100,000 articles by 2010, and one million articles by 2012.

Suppose we merely double our article count every year. Then we’ll still break 100,000 articles by 2011 and one million by 2015.

Suppose we merely add 50% more articles every year.  We would break 50,000 articles by 2011, 100,000 articles by 2013, and one million by 2019.  Even this relatively slow pace would be well worth working toward, considering the other advantages of the Citizendium.

In short, if you assume that we will continue to accelerate our growth rate by at least 50% per year, you can expect us to have over 100,000 articles in about five years.  Frankly, accelerating our growth rate by 50% would be, by the standards of thriving and proven Web 2.0 projects–like the Citizendium–on the slow side.  I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say we’ll do better.  I think we’ll at least double our article creation rate every year.  So I think we’ll probably have at least 100,000 by 2011, and one million by 2015.

And that’s without any such “explosion of growth” as I mentioned earlier.  If we do reach a “tipping point” where loads of new people join all at once, we can increase our growth rate not by 200% or 300% in one year, but by 1000%, or more.

Of course, I don’t claim to be able to predict what our rate of acceleration will be.  It’s still possible that the project will, from here until eternity, muddle on creating 14 articles per day.  It’s even possible that the project will simply collapse and our rate will go to 0.  I just don’t think that these latter possibilities are at all likely.  Why?

The project’s fundamentals are solid and growing stronger through motivated, diligent effort. Most of our active contributors show no signs of giving up.  I’m not giving up. Lots of new people are getting active, especially with our recruitment drive.  Getting on board is now quick and easy.  We become more and more credible, both as a productive community and as an information source, every day.  Citizendium articles are also rising in the Google rankings, which in time will create viral growth through the Google effect, as I argued last spring.  Finally, as I explained above, we might reach a tipping point sometime fairly soon, and increase our growth rate explosively.

A possibility you may not have considered

I’ve had a particularly fascinating idea in mind since before the Citizendium was conceived.  It is one of my deep motivations for starting the project.

Consider a possibility.  What would content shared in common look like if it were subject to open review and collaborative development from really large numbers of specialists, and other smart people with valuable input, from around the world?  Imagine particularly if versions of this content could be approved and displayed, while further work could continue, under expert guidance, indefinitely?

Given enough time and enough people, the results would surely be amazing.  The world has never seen anything like the picture I have in my mind’s eye.  It is hard to predict for sure the quality of the content, but I suspect, based on my experience so far, that virtually every article created this way would, after some years, be wonderfully readable, yet also extremely detailed, perfectly representative of the range of expert opinion, and in general, magisterial.  What if we had hundreds of thousands of articles like that, on every subject?  A central storehouse of really reliable information would change the world, I suspect, in ways we can’t even guess now.

If this possibility is amazing, it is even more amazing that it’s within our grasp.  We’re still in our infancy, but I see no reason to think that the Citizendium cannot seize this opportunity.  We are laying the foundations for it, and every day it seems more likely.

I suspect that even many rank-and-file Citizens (contributors to the Citizendium) do not fully grasp this potential.  Almost certainly, the vast majority of people who are casually tracking our progress haven’t got an inkling of where the project might lead.  Those who do don’t really care about what strike them as wild possibilities.  Perhaps it’s a weakness of mine that I do care about wild possibilities.  But given two reasonable assumptions–merely time and further development along the path we’ve already struck out on–the outcome described seems not just possible, not just likely, but inevitable.

Of course, I could just have a surfeit of imagination.  Time will tell.  What I do know is that if we do have a good chance to create something so stupefyingly useful for humanity, we must try.

Do you agree?  Then join up and pitch in!

For more information on the Citizendium project, see the citizendium.org website.  You can easily join here.

Why the Citizendium Will (Probably) Succeed

Larry Sanger
This essay argues that the Citizendium is feasible.  The wiki is in public view, or will be within a few days.  You can join now.

1. So far, so good.

The Citizendium pilot project wiki got under way privately at the start of last November.  In the intervening months, we have steadily grown to some 1,100 “CZ Live” articles–that’s approximately how many articles we have done significant work on.  A fairly large percentage of these, I believe well over half, are either original articles or have been significantly changed from Wikipedia sources.  We have steadily added authors and editors in this period, so that we have 820 authors and 180 editors (some of whom also have listed themselves as authors).  Our activity has grown from 100 edits per day in the first month to over 500 prior to launch.  Every day, a large variety of people from many fields sign on and do some work.  This is all in a period in which the project has been visible only to those who have applied to the project.  In addition, while it has received a fair bit of press, we have done very little in the way of recruitment–but with good results when we have.  More aggressive recruitment is our trump card, which we haven’t played.

Some will take this progress report to show that we are a roaring success; others will take it as evidence of our impending doom.  In fact, the progress report shows merely that the fundamentals of the project are sound, many basic doubts are now dismissible on the basis of solid experience–and little more than that.  It shows that that experts can be quite good at wiki-style strong collaboration; that they can work well together with the general public; that a wide variety of people have a substantial desire to work on this sort of project; that a largely collegial and pleasant community can be built on principles of the use of real names and gentle expert guidance; that, so long as we avoid wide-open self-registration as we tried for about three weeks, this sort of project can be free of vandalism.  In short, there are no “gotchas”–nothing that makes me think this project can’t work–and quite a bit of good news.  We are obviously a long way off from “unseat[ing] Wikipedia as the go-to destination for general information online,” as our first press release said we’re trying to do.  But our progress does show that we’re well justified in moving out of a pilot project phase and into a new “beta project” phase.

The question on everyone’s mind, no doubt–and which determines one’s willingness to work on the project at all–is whether we will thrive in the long term. In this essay, I want to advance what are, I think, some strong arguments that we will thrive in the long term.  I will also respond to a passel of ill-founded doubts.  What will this argumentation establish?  No guarantees; it would be silly to make guarantees, because future human behavior is hard to predict.  I expressed no small skepticism about our prospects myself last September, and I am still skeptical, but now less so.  So I would say that the arguments here should establish that involvement as an “early adopter” is well justified.  In other words: dive on in, the water’s fine!

2. The Google effect.

It is worth reviewing why Wikipedia grew so well, because I think we will grow in a similar way and for similar reasons.  At some point, Google started spidering Wikipedia, that is, it indexed the whole wiki and started serving up pages among its search results.  The first time we noticed this, I think sometime in the spring of 2001, we saw a spike in traffic as well as in activity on the wiki.  With the new people on board, the rate of article production increased.  The next time Google spidered the wiki, more pages were indexed, and we got even more traffic.  It was an enormously productive feedback loop.

Obviously, not all wikis enjoy this Google effect; many die on the vine.  There are, I theorize, at least four requirements to enjoy the effect.  First, there needs to be a reasonably large fund of content to begin with.  Second, this content needs to be spiderable (by Google) and readable (by the general public).  Third, registration needs to be fairly easy and open.  Fourth, the project itself needs broad appeal to users who are also potential participants.

(You might think that the search results have to be fairly high up, as well.  Well, in fact, that doesn’t seem to have been the case.  I remember being quite excited, in 2001, when a Wikipedia article appeared on the first page of results–and that was certainly some time after the Google effect had kicked in.  Our success seems to have had a lot more to do with the sheer quantity of pages indexed by Google.)

So let’s see how the Citizendium stacks up against these requirements.

First, we may not have millions of articles, but as of this writing we do have about 1,600 pages in the Main namespace, and about 1,100 “CZ Live” articles; that’s enough, I think, to begin a positive feedback loop with Google.  And there’s no reason to think we won’t continue to grow at least as fast as we have been growing.  Indeed, after opening up, we should grow, I hope, at least somewhat faster.  (That’s the conservative prediction.)  That means that, if we need a few thousand more articles before the Google effect kicks in, we merely need to wait a few months.

Second, we should have launched into publicly-viewable and -joinable beta project by the end of March.  Google will be able to spider the wiki then.

Third, getting on board will typically be as easy as filling out a Web form.  Right now, users need only send an e-mail that, since a biography is required, might take five or ten minutes to prepare.  It is not necessary to have any special qualifications to get on board.  Most applicants are given a username and password within 24 hours, and many within just a few hours.  Whether this is “easy and open” enough to support the Google effect is debatable; I think it will be, but time will tell.

Fourth, the Citizendium has, I think, an immediate and broad appeal to many readers who are also potential writers.  The appeal to readers is obvious.  Finding factual or “encyclopedic” information about general topics is one of the main things people use search engines to do.  This no doubt is why we click on Wikipedia links so frequently: regardless of how dodgy the information might be, it does, after all, purport to be accurate information, which is what we’re looking for.

If we add reliability to this basic, winning formula, the appeal to readers increases hugely.  I suppose the reason Wikipedia articles are as attractive to search engine users as they are, is simply that they sum up a lot of information.  That implies a high signal-to-noise ratio.  But if an entry has been overseen by experts–that is, if the project as a whole is evidently devoted not just to boatloads of information, but boatloads of credible, expert-vetted information–then it becomes much more attractive.  Imagine if Britannica were somehow (magically) to produce 1.5 million articles in English of the same average length as Wikipedia articles, and imagine that it made those articles free for all to view.  People would obviously turn to the Britannica articles first–because their first concern is credible information.

In addition, the potential appeal of the Citizendium to contributors is sizable, and growing, as I will argue.  This is important enough that I want to develop the argument at some length.

3. The latent demand is sizable and growing.

The latent demand among potential contributors for something like the Citizendium is tremendous.  This demand has been created, in general, by the availability of so much information on the Internet and the lack of few easy, effective ways to pick out what’s credible.  More particularly, the demand for the Citizendium has been created by Wikipedia’s problems.  With each new Wikipedia scandal, there is a growing outcry: “Can’t we do any better than this?”

This outcry is loudest among professors, teachers, and librarians, who with increasing alarm have observed their charges using Wikipedia uncritically, as if it were just like Encyclopedia Britannica–only free, and bigger.  Every plugged-in student and researcher in the world has been given a giant “encyclopedia” that, despite lacking authoritativeness, is just so darned useful that it seems inefficient to consult anything else.  Wikipedia isn’t going away, either.  Therefore, those professors, teachers, and librarians have every reason to root for and support the Citizendium. Once it looks to them like we’re a going concern–which, arguably, we already are–there’s a good chance that increasing numbers of these information professionals will join us and recommend that others join us.  And once we have enough of the educators of the world on our side, we’ll have an unstoppable momentum.

The news media will probably help as well.  They have already given the Citizendium some much-needed publicity; many of our early contributors have come via news articles.  The reasons for the press interest are obvious.  Having reported on Wikipedia’s many problems, they understand its drawbacks, and they themselves are professionals and so naturally appreciate the value of professional involvement.  So journalists naturally think that Wikipedia could use some competition.  That’s us.  The Citizendium, organized by the same person who organized Wikipedia, is perhaps the most viable free alternative to Wikipedia under development.  It has been growing respectably in its private pilot project phase, and is now launching into public view.  The story seems compelling, and it will become only more so as we grow.  The result will be that news coverage will probably continue to send many new people our way.  This is very important since only a tiny fraction of our potential contributors have even heard of us, let alone visited the site and considered joining.

Not all of the attention we’ve received, however, has been positive.  We have plenty of fans in the Blogosphere, but also a good many detractors.  A lot of the negative posts only help prove some points we’ve made and help establish us in our (quite desirable) niche more firmly.  Too often, these posts are poorly-reasoned, written in ignorance of basic, easy-to-find facts, and exude contempt for anyone who would even suggest that experts be given a special role, or that Wikipedia needs competition.  Know us by our opponents.  To the extent to which our opponents reveal themselves to be closed-minded, more open-minded people will want to know what we’re all about.  The more that the dogmatists spout off, the more potential allies will rally to our cause.

A good number of disaffected Wikipedians have joined us.  Our increasing activity will bring over even more.  These are frequently the sort of people we want.  After all, our natural contributors like the idea of Wikipedia.  They love the ease of contribution, the instant visibility of their work, the sense of shared purpose inherent in strong collaboration, the gradually improving quality, and so on.  They love working with Wikipedia’s many excellent contributors.  Despite all that, they even more strongly dislike having to deal with its many problem users–disrespectful, immature, ideologically driven, or  unstable people, that administrators are unable to rein in.  Indeed, if the many complaints are to be believed, such people are to be found among Wikipedia’s administrators.

So there are a lot of good reasons to think the Citizendium is filling a demand for a new alternative, and that that demand is growing.  So, given what I said earlier, there’s an excellent chance that we will enjoy the same Google effect that helped Wikipedia to grow.

4. Objections and replies.

A lot of doubt about the viability of our enterprise has been generated over the last six months.  As I hope to make clear, these doubts are generally poorly founded.

Objection. You can never overtake Wikipedia.  It’s growing at a staggering rate and has a head start.  You’ll never be able to catch up.  As long as Wikipedia remains so much huger, why should anyone contribute to the Citizendium?

Reply. First of all, it is a huge mistake to think that as long as Wikipedia remains bigger, nobody will see a need for another resource.  Plainly, our many supporters and growing roster of contributors see the need.  Second, we can become more useful and more reliable than Wikipedia with fewer articles.  Success is not directly tied to quantity of information–and many of our writers implicitly understand this.  But, third, the real question is how many people will want to contribute to the Citizendium after a few more years, once we’ve grown more and the project has been better publicized–once the word has gotten out better to our potential contributors.  This is an empirical question.  If you ask me to give an answer a priori, I’ll hazard a guess that, in the long run, there will be more people who will want to contribute to a free encyclopedia under our rules than under Wikipedia’s.  That’s just because our system is likely to be more civil and pleasant and actually focused on the work of creating a credible encyclopedia.

Objection. Citizendium articles right now are often short, or derivative of Wikipedia, or in other ways unimpressive.  Wikipedia is actually of higher quality than the Citizendium!

Reply. Well, make sure you make the correct comparison.  You should have seen Wikipedia after its first few months!  The quality of its articles, at the time, was laughable.  Besides, in our new “article checklist” that tracks various statistics, almost half of our articles are either approved, developed, or developing articles, which means they are beyond the (very short) “stub” stage, and they are not merely copies of Wikipedia articles.  That is way better than Wikipedia was after its first few months.  Our most active editors tend to put enormous amounts of effort into relatively few articles, with excellent results.

Objection. You have nearly 1,000 contributors signed up, but (as I write this, just prior to launch) you are dancing around 500 edits per day.  Surely you should have more than that.

Reply. There are two effective replies to this.  The first is that very many people who have joined us did so simply out of curiosity–to see what we’re all about while the project is still in its pilot project phase.  I have no idea what percentage of our registrants of which this is true, but it’s probably sizable.  Second, there’s the old 80-20 rule: 20% of your participants will make 80% of the edits.  And that rule has got it about right in our case.  I’m told that about 250 people have made 10 or more edits to the Citizendium pilot project wiki, while total number of accounts making edits is over 1,200–which must mean that there are a lot of people who made edits without actually adding the “CZ Author” tag to their user pages.

Objection. Professionals don’t work without compensation.  They require either personal credit that can be used in tenure and advancement committees, or else money.  You’re offering neither.  How can you possibly expect to get enough experts to make this a viable project?

Reply. Wikipedia itself has collected quite a few actual experts (i.e., people who would be invited to be editors here, if they were to apply).  How were they motivated to do their work, particularly when the discovery that they’re contributing to Wikipedia would, if anything, be more likely to harm their careers more than help them?  It seems a lot of people, including a lot of experts, are strongly motivated either to show off their knowledge or to teach; it’s fun, or fulfilling.  Wikipedia and the Citizendium are outlets for this laudable behavior, and the Citizendium is likely to become increasingly more attractive to experts than Wikipedia.  Moreover, it’s likely that success in writing decent articles will lead to more success at recruiting editors, who will want to have their say about topics that we have not quite gotten right, by their lights.  It’s also worth pointing out that in the few forays into recruitment we have done, we’ve had decent success.  Therefore, if we really feel that lack of expert participation is a concern, the problem is easily solved by doing more directed recruitment.

It is an empirical matter whether we’ll collect enough active editors to be able to create a large enough collection of approved articles.  We won’t know until we try, and try we will.  I have to admit that it would be astonishing, really, if we found enough experts to approve on the order of millions of articles, which is our goal.  It’s more likely that we’ll have a decent set of approved articles which is always a fraction of the total number of articles we are working on.  This, at least, would be a decided improvement over Wikipedia, and it’s something I am hopeful we can achieve.

Objection. Anonymity is really the main reason for Wikipedia’s growth.  Unless you are open to people who refuse to give out their real names, you’re doomed to be small and irrelevant.

Reply. Anonymous contribution is not the main reason for Wikipedia’s rapid growth–virality is.  And virality doesn’t require anonymity.  The “six degrees” friend websites, some of which have worked quite well because they are viral, generally make use of real names.  The Citizendium is devoted to the proposition that we can grow a large community of named, responsible individuals virally.  We think it’s worth a try.

Objection. The Citizendium is doomed, because it’s “credentialist.”  You’re using credentials to give people special rights in a wiki encyclopedia project?  Nobody can take that seriously.

Reply. This is a uniquely Wikipedian objection, and it is little better than wishful thinking.  I gave a speech debunking the underlying view.  You are free to disagree with whatever threatens absolute, pristine, radical egalitarianism.  But even if we were philosophically wrong, which we aren’t, does it really follow that we won’t be able to find enough participants?  Of course not, that’s a total nonsequitur.  Since a lot of people do like the notion (correct or not) of an expert-led wiki encyclopedia, it is not unlikely that we’ll be able to get enough contributors.

Objection. (From Clay Shirky.)  “The costs of certifying experts and insuring deference to them–the costs of creating and sustaining the necessary social facts–will sandbag the system, making it too annoying to use. … The Citizendium project assumes that the desire of ordinary users to work alongside and be guided by experts is high, but everything in the proposal seems to raise the costs of contribution, relative to Wikipedia. If users do not want to participate in a system where the costs of participating are high, Citizendium will simply fail to grow.”

Reply. When Shirky originally wrote this, I fully intended to reply, but I got sidetracked by doing what was apparently impossible.  Now, some six months later, we’re in a better position to evaluate his argument.  I note two facts.  (1) A few hundred people did participate in our system over the several months of the pilot project.  (2) The Citizendium has grown rather nicely, particularly considering that it has been a private pilot project for which we did rather little active recruitment.  Since Shirky’s conclusion looks false, where did his argument go wrong?  I think it’s this assumption: “The costs of certifying experts and insuring deference to them…will…mak[e] it too annoying to use.”  In fact, it hasn’t been that hard for people to send in e-mail applications with biographies and supporting Web links.  Lots of people have done so.  We’re going to be semi-automating this process, too, so that constables can approve new applications with the press of a button.

Moreover, the cost of “insuring deference” to experts isn’t as high as Shirky thought it would be.  Our constables have had to do very little indeed, to my recollection, to “insure deference” of authors to editors.  This might have something to do with the fact that we require our contributors to endorse a Statement of Fundamental Policies that says, basically, that editors have certain privileges.  But I think it has more to do with the fact that people who are committed to the elegant expression of expert opinion tend to have the common sense and politeness necessary to ensure that they can collaborate with others very productively.  One of the things that I personally was a little surprised at was just how well our editors took to collaboration.  For some reason, many people just assume that professionals just won’t be so good at wiki-style collaboration.  But I’ve repeatedly observed that those editors who tried it just got it right away.  Perhaps the reason they get it is that successful collaboration is all about being collegial, and true professionals are naturally collegial and reasonable.  And, to come back to the point, when you’ve got such collegial, reasonable people serving as editors, it’s not hard to defer to them when necessary.

Objection. (From Cory Doctorow, citing Clay Shirky again.)  “…as Shirky shows, an expert-focused Wikipedia would likely devolve into interminable pissing matches over who was and was not qualified to be called an expert, because expertise isn’t a measurable quantity, but rather something that is socially constructed.”

Reply. It hasn’t so devolved yet.  While we’ve had many a polite dispute, I’m not sure I can recall a single “pissing match” between editors over expertise.  This isn’t surprising to me.  Most experts are pretty comfortable in their expertise; they don’t have to prove it to anyone.  It seems Doctorow assumed that editors would often try to settle disputes by citing their credentials, as Wikipedia’s Essjay infamously did.  Few actual tenured professors would say things like, “This is a text I often require for my students, and I would hang my own Ph.D. on it’s [sic] credibility.”  True professionals rarely say such things, and that Essjay did should have been a dead giveaway that he was a fraud.

Objection. Won’t experts and authors be endlessly at war?  Isn’t the idea of giving experts a “gentle oversight” role in an otherwise open Web 2.0 “bazaar” a recipe for social disaster?

Reply. If this were true, we would have already seen some inkling of it.  But the fact is that we’ve seen very little author-vs.-editor conflict.  Disagreements tend to be editor-on-editor and author-on-author, and actually, we have seen very little acrimonious conflict, period.  Experts and people who want to work with them tend to be boringly, yet refreshingly polite, which is how we like it.

Objection. What about dealing with difficult users, whether editors or authors?  The typical personal attacks and other disruptive behavior will inevitably drive off editors, who have a low tolerance for such nonsense.

Reply. This objection assumes that we will have many similar social problems to Wikipedia’s.  This is unlikely and, in fact, we have had all such problems well in hand.  There are several excellent reasons to think that we won’t have as many difficult users, and that they’ll be easier to deal with.  Here’s a brief run-down: we require people to use their own real names, which tends to make them behave better; we have strict rules against abuse and disruption, and constables aren’t afraid to ban people because of it (we’ve already done so in a few cases); the project’s editors set the tone, which has kept things fairly collegial; and contributors are required to endorse a Statement of Fundamental Policies, which requires would-be disruptors to recognize the authority of editors and constables.

Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge (longer version)

Larry Sanger

1. Thinkers of the world, start imagining.

According to one source, there are over one billion (a thousand million) people on the Internet.  That means there must be tens of millions of intellectuals online–I mean educated, thinking people who read about science or ideas regularly.  Tens of millions of intellectuals can work together, if they so choose. Technologically, there is nothing standing in their way.  This is truly a dumbfounding, incredible situation.  Humanity has not even begun to explore the possibilities inherent in this situation.  For all the endless talk about “Web 2.0,” we have hardly even begun to think about harnessing this intellectual power for knowledge-building projects, much less actually act on it.

Imagine what is possible with tens of millions of intellectuals working together on educational and reference projects.  (The trouble, of course, is actually getting them together–“herding cats” is the operative phrase.)  What could attract them to pool their intellectual power?  What content creation systems would best harness this power?  What fantastic things might result?  Imagine the discussions, the journalism, the news summaries, the textbooks and educational material, the encyclopedias, the libraries, the multimedia, the 3D universes, not to mention brand new sorts of resources possible for the first time and only through massive collaboration.  The paltry first steps we have made on such resources are admirable, but ultimately will prove to be laughable compared to what will exist in five or ten years.  It will resemble the difference between the first PCs and the firepower of the latest business-class desktops.

Whenever I think about this now, I literally quiver with excitement, and I am amazed that we, educated people throughout the world, have barely begun to imagine what new reference and educational materials could come into being, if we pool our efforts in the open, collaborative ways demonstrated by open source software hackers.  Even less have we begun to take such possibilities really seriously, or actually get to work on them.

But this is changing very rapidly, and I want to make a prediction.  In the next year, by the end of 2007, every major university, library, museum, archive, professional organization, government, and corporation will be asking themselves with increasing urgency: how, using what systems and methods, can we pool the entire world’s intellectual resources to create the ideal information resource?  What worldwide projects and organizations should we join or help to create?

2. Wikipedia.

We may take Wikipedia as an early prototype of the application of open source hacker principles to content rather than code.  I want to argue that it is just that, an early prototype, rather than a mature model of how such principles should be applied to reference, scholarly, and educational content.

Wikipedia, started only five years ago, now has millions of articles in over one hundred languages, and has nearly singlehandedly introduced the world’s intellectuals to the possibilities of enormous collaborative efforts.  It is a project that shouldn’t work, but does–who could have expected such a radically open project to produce anything of value?  But, by giving intellectuals the world over an open platform on which to work together, a clear task, and a simple interface, Wikipedia has shown a global audience what enormous, distributed knowledge collaboration can achieve.  The work of the Wikipedians has astounded the world.

I always have been an enormous fan of Wikipedia, and I still am.  But I have achieved notoriety with some of Wikipedia’s community and supporters by declaring that we can and should do better.  I now want to help launch something better, if that’s possible.  Let me explain why I am doing so, and then I will describe the project itself.

When on January 2, 2001 I first had the idea for Wikipedia, and then got to work defining policies and leading the community that built it, I was also employed as editor-in-chief of Nupedia, a more straight-laced, peer-reviewed free encyclopedia project.  Wikipedia was to be a free-wheeling, fun side project, a dynamic source of content, for the more serious Nupedia project.  Wikipedia was closer in spirit to the old open source, hacker ways, where Nupedia was essentially an academic project.  But together, Nupedia and Wikipedia were going to be an “unstoppable high-quality article-creation juggernaut,” or so I said in 2001.

I will not go into the history very much, which I’ve done elsewhere, but I want to recount a few relevant details.  Contrary to popular belief, Nupedia did not fail simply because its system was too complicated and closed.  Rather, in 2001 and the beginning of 2002, I was working so hard on Wikipedia that I was greatly overextended–and so, Nupedia effectively lost its editor-in-chief.  Few people know, or remember that: Nupedia withered in large part precisely because I was focusing on Wikipedia instead.  But by the end of 2001, the Nupedia Advisory Board had agreed to relaunch the project with a greatly simplified two-step system.  That’s another thing a lot of people don’t know about Nupedia.  However, by that time, the Internet economy had collapsed and so Bomis, the company of which Jimmy Wales was CEO, and which hired me to start these encyclopedia projects, lost the ability to pay me.  I had to resign.  This hit Nupedia much harder than Wikipedia, since Nupedia was much more of a top-down project.

After that I twice offered Jimmy Wales a way to keep Nupedia alive.  Once, I offered to find an academic sponsor–a university or foundation–for Nupedia.  Another time, I offered to find the money to buy the domain name and subscriber list myself.  Jimmy essentially turned down both offers.  I could have saved it, and I wanted to save it, but Jimmy did not support the idea.  It seems that with Wikipedia, he had found the only model that he wanted to survive.  But the result was that only half of the original conception of “the finest encyclopedia in the history of humankind”–the wild-and-woolly half–was preserved.

Not surprisingly, with only one-half of the original design, some problems with Wikipedia–problems that continue to this day–emerged.  Wikipedia quickly showed itself to have a wonderful system for producing massive amounts of reasonably good content quickly.  But that does not mean that, as an encyclopedia and as a community, it is free of serious and endemic problems:

  • The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently.  Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.
  • Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not–in other words, the troll problem.
  • Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.
  • This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics.  Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with.  As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism.  Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism.  In an encyclopedia, there’s something wrong with that.

Can Wikipedia recover from these problems?  The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem in the first place.  Wikipedia’s most passionate defenders, if they react at all, will probably do nothing but explain why I am mistaken in each of these criticisms.  There are some active Wikipedians who are able admit at least some of these criticisms.  But could the Wikipedia community as a whole admit any of them, with enough force actually to do anything about them?  I am now, I fully admit, an outsider looking in on the project.  But I do still watch the project a fair bit, follow the news about it, and read mailing list posts and events on the wiki.  So I know of course that there are movements afoot to reform Wikipedia in various ways.  But I see little evidence that the community, whatever its discontents, will go so far as to admit the problems I’ve listed.

The failure to recognize these serious problems is a reflection of the fact that, at bottom, they are political problems.  Like all open communities online, Wikipedia’s community is self-selecting, and its policies have determined who stays and who leaves (or is driven away).  For this reason, online communities tend to become rather conservative in their attitudes toward their own systems, and Wikipedia is certainly no different.  So it is not surprising that, as anyone who is aware of how Wikipedia works knows, the changes made to the system recently have been mostly cosmetic, and even the bolder of these changes have little chance of solving the problems I outlined earlier.  The first step to solving a problem is to admit that it’s a problem; and much of the Wikipedia community will not admit the problems I’ve listed, unless they have a massive collective change of heart.  And, I think, that is very unlikely ever to happen.  In fact, you could say that I have waited for several years for it to happen, and it never has.

3. A new community and a new project: the Citizendium.

[Note, January 2007: while we are still full steam ahead with a fork of Wikipedia’s processes, we are having second thoughts about forking Wikipedia’s articles.  We’ve decided as an experiment actually to delete all the unedited Wikipedia articles from our database, to encourage people to start new articles altogether.  We think this might encourage even more activity than we’ve had–though we’re pleased with the amount of activity we’ve had so far–and help us to create a more distinctive Citizendium culture.]

Often (not always), if you wish to make any very important changes to an open source or open content project that has an entrenched community, the only way to do it is to start a new community.  And that is what I propose.

I propose a fork of Wikipedia to be called the Citizendium, that is, the Citizens’ Compendium.  I doubt I have to remind many people in the audience of this, but the open content license, the GNU Free Documentation License, permits other communities to work on their own versions of the content from the parent project.  So, legally, this project is clearly permitted.  I think it is also morally permitted–perhaps even morally recommended–if there is a chance of retaining Wikipedia’s virtues while eliminating the problems I just mentioned.

I propose to start what we might call a “progressive fork.” A progressive fork works like this: we will begin with all of Wikipedia’s articles, so that the Citizendium will begin as, simply, a mirror of Wikipedia.  Then people start making changes to articles in the Citizendium. On a very regular basis, we will refresh our database with the latest versions of Wikipedia articles.  If the Citizendium has not changed an article, while Wikipedia has, then we proceed to upload the most recent Wikipedia article.  But if the Citizendium has changed an article, then it is not refreshed.  That’s when that particular article is forked.  Of course, I have no doubt that tools will be written immediately that will allow users to compare the differences between the Wikipedia article and the corresponding Citizendium article side-by-side.  In addition, of course, people will be able to start brand new articles on topics Wikipedia has not yet covered.

Obviously, you want to know how the Citizendium editorial system will differ from Wikipedia’s system.  There will be three main areas of dissimilarity.  First, the project will invite experts to serve as editors, who will be able to make content decisions in their areas of specialization, but otherwise working shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary authors.  Second, the project will require that contributors be logged in under their own real names, and work according to a community charter.  Third, the project will halt and actually reverse some of the “feature creep” that has developed in Wikipedia.  Allow me to elaborate these differences.

Before I elaborate, however, let me assure you that I do not think that I necessarily have all of these details right.  Obviously, I am fallible and, like all of us, my understanding is limited.  Clearly, this project needs as much intelligent input as it can get.  So I want to start a debate among people who agree with me about Wikipedia’s problems and with at least many of the suggestions here.  Together we can settle upon, and get broad community buy-in for, the best set of policies.

First, here are some details of the editorial system I propose:

  • We will have a new role in the system: that of editor. Others will be called authors. Generally, authors will defer to editors when editors are speaking about their areas of specialization.  When authors get into a dispute, they may work out a compromise, or they may consult an editor.  Editors’ decisions will be logged in a new, standard part of each article’s discussion page.
  • For the most part, editors will work in the system just as everyone else does, “shoulder-to-shoulder” with ordinary authors.  Editors will not be able to direct work in a top-down fashion, or to “squat” on articles and prevent others from making any changes.  Editors who are not comfortable with this arrangement should not participate.  Those who attempt to make articles their personal bailiwicks, shooing off everyone else, will be ejected from the project, no matter what their qualifications.
  • Editors will be self-selecting, in a certain way.  There will be no editor selection process.  Rather, editors will be invited to come to the website and simply declare themselves to be editors, if they meet certain benchmark requirements–the same straight-up credentials that the offline world relies on.  Editors will be required to state their credentials on their user pages, for everyone to examine.
  • It is not the case that there will be one editor per topic or subject.  There can be as many editors on a subject as arrive: the more the merrier.
  • Editors will not place their names on articles, thereby claiming ownership over them.  They must, however, sign editorial decisions that they articulate on article discussion pages.
  • Disputes among editors, and long-standing and difficult content issues, will be settled by discipline-oriented editorial workgroups.
  • Editors will have the right to place articles in an “approved” category.  Other (qualified) editors may remove articles from the “approved” category; again, disputes are to be settled by discipline-oriented editorial workgroups.
  • These editorial workgroups will be staffed only by editors.  They will not be top-down, bureaucratic structures, but flat communities of equals that operate democratically.  There will be Chief Subject Editors, but they will serve the role of facilitators and organizers, not dictators.

Second, some differences in the community:

  • There will be no logged-out editing and no anonymous editing.  Anyone may participate, but all must be logged in under their own real names (we will use the honor principle to begin with), and with a working e-mail address.  Where Wikipedia shares the culture of anonymity found in the broader Internet, the Citizendium will have a culture of real-world, personal responsibility.
  • The community will launch with a charter that articulates the project’s goals, fundamental policies, governance, and the rights of participants and of the public.  As with most charters, the Citizendium community charter will be relatively brief and vague, difficult to change, and regarded as “binding law” of the project.
  • All contributors will, as a condition of their participation, be expected to support the community charter.  If they cannot do this, they are not welcome to participate and may be ejected from the project.
  • The charter and rules will be enforced by “constables.”  In time, an effective and fair “legal” system will be established.  It will be made up of people who are mature, well-educated, possessed of something of a legal mind, with a record free of major infractions, respected by their peers, and clearly committed to the community charter.
  • Constables will rapidly eject the project’s inevitable, tiresome trolls, without going through a long, painful process of the sort Wikipedia suffers under–which it euphemistically calls its “arbitration” process.  A fair and open system of clear rules will allow them to do.  Decisions will, of course, be appealable.
  • Constables will not have any special authority to make editorial decisions, unless they are also editors.
  • Those constables that are also editors will not be permitted to enforce the decisions and recommendations that they make in their capacity as editors.

Third, over the years, Wikipedia has suffered some feature creep.  The Citizendium will be deliberately simplified and kept simple:

  • Subject categories will very probably be eliminated.  Citizendium articles serve as their own category pages, so to speak.  So, when someone edits a Wikipedia-imported article for the first time, he will be instructed to remove all subject category information.
  • The “Wikiproject” method of organizing work will be simplified in the Citizendium.
  • “Portal” pages will probably not exist.
  • Project news will be officially reported in one place: a blog, to which a large number of people will have posting rights.  (This blog has not yet been set up, but will be soon.)
  • So-called user boxes, which have been controversial and much-abused on Wikipedia, will not be permitted.
  • No doubt there will be other simplifications as well.

Fourth, copyright and libel abuses will be handled quite differently.  There will be a zero tolerance policy toward such abuses.  Moreover, the living subjects of Citizendium articles will receive much more courteous treatment than they have sometimes received from the Wikipedia community.  Among other things, this might mean that they would be able to request removal of biographies about themselves–if they are not politicians or other prominent public persons–or even to have a crucial editorial role in the articles about themselves.  Essentially, I want to make the Citizendium a project with which John Seigenthaler, Sr. and Bernard Haisch are comfortable.

Finally, the Citizendium won’t officially call itself an encyclopedia.  We might call it an experimental workspace, to start articles and to improve article quality.  It will require a vote of the project’s future governing body or bodies for us to call ourselves an “encyclopedia” officially.  Until then, we will be a “compendium.”

So much for the differences, and as I hope you can see, they are significant.  But it is important to note that the system will still work very much the way Wikipedia does, in many respects.

Areas of similarity include:

  • It’s more or less, kind of like, an encyclopedia.  It’s a wiki that aspires to be as good as a real encyclopedia.
  • It’s open to virtually everyone.  Virtually anyone can come to the website and, within a few minutes, be working on an article.  It is not Expertpedia.  It’s for people who want to work with and under the direction of genuine subject-area experts.  Virtually everyone who is interested in working on an encyclopedia using their real identities, and who agree with the ground rules and aims of the project, will be welcome.  The authors will probably greatly outnumber the editors.
  • People will be able to add significant content while temporarily “breaking”  certain patterns or article flow, and ignore complicated formatting rules, etc.; others can then be expected to do the necessary formatting.  There will still be this sort of informality and division of labor in the Citizendium.
  • It will be free to read and to copy (it will use the same license, the GFDL).
  • There will be no advertisements.  There may be unobtrusive non-profit sponsorship statements.  (See the FAQ for details.)
  • It will come under the control of a non-profit foundation (yet to be either determined or formed).
  • The neutrality policy will be virtually the same, and the rule against original research will be virtually the same.  (These policies go back to Nupedia days.)
  • Many other article policies (e.g., bolding the topic) will be the same.
  • The MediaWiki software will be the same (though some settings will be different) and there are no plans to fork it.

4. The way forward.

[Note, Jan. 2007: this section is now old news entirely and may be safely skipped.]

Finally, I want to discuss the way forward–in other words, how to get the project started.  First, let’s talk about the short term, the medium term, and the long term.

I stipulate that, whatever else we do, we should have the servers and the wiki software set up, and available at least to some beta testers, as soon as possible.

While waiting for the wiki to be set up, what can the ordinary rank-and-file future authors or editors do?  Three things: first, join the project forums or a project mailing list (the list called Citizendium-L at least); second, contribute your thoughts to the discussion; and, third, wait for the announcement that the wiki is ready to edit.  I want to start the project with a bang.  I would like to strain the limits of whatever server configuration we put in place.  Also, a donation at this crucial juncture would help get this venture off the ground.

So much for the short term.  As to the medium term, over the coming weeks, I hope the Citizendium project will be contacted by individuals as well as universities, foundations, and companies.  My personal belief, which I do not hold very strongly, is that the latent interest in and support for this project will allow us to collect a truly stellar group of advisors and partner institutions; if so, this experiment might succeed brilliantly.  As to what we need, precisely, please see the project FAQ for some ideas.

Once the wiki has launched, we should begin to form discipline-specific editorial groups.  They will have their own forums or mailing lists and eventually their own meetings.  I want to emphasize at the outset to potential editors that their role in the wiki is not to control the wiki with an iron fist, not to throw up roadblocks to work, but instead to facilitate work by making binding decisions as needed.  There will be rules to this effect.  Editors and editorial workgroups alike must be committed to working within the wiki format–they must not try to change it into something that it is not.

Also once the wiki has launched, I think we should immediately hold a series of monthly face-to-face meetings in about a half-dozen major cities in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia (or New Zealand)–English-speaking countries, because the plan is to organize the English language project.  I hope the first meeting will be in the San Francisco Bay area (close to where I live) in October, but nothing has been set.

I think perhaps the best way to get these meetings started is if academic departments send the Citizendium project leadership an invitation to host a workshop about the Citizendium. Based on the invitations we receive, we will establish a workgroup to decide when and where these meetings will take place.  At the meetings themselves, then, we will get to know each other and talk about the project.  At the same time, I, and other project leaders who join the project, will hammer out constructive, operational partnerships, do interviews, and so forth.  We will also use the meetings as platforms to promote the project itself to the larger community of intellectuals.

But note that since the project is necessarily widely distributed, and almost no one will be able to attend all meetings, important decisions will not be made at these meetings.  Except for the last meeting.  I conceive of the last of these meetings–perhaps in March, 2007–as a constitutional convention, in which the essential policies of the project and its governance are hammered out and adopted by the advisory committee.

My notion–and at this point, I could be persuaded to do things differently–is to focus first on organizing the English language project formally.  The other Citizendium wikis, in other languages, could be launched at the same time as the English Citizendium wiki.  But my current thinking is that if the management of the non-English Citizendia require my personal assistance, that assistance would probably be best rendered after going through a pilot process in the English language.

But I hope you will interpret (correctly) the fact that I am making this announcement in Germany as indicating my personal commitment to making this project fully international as quickly as is feasible and responsible to do.  On the other hand, I do not want to presume to speak for the interested German-speaking community online.  Knowing as you now do that I personally am getting behind a fork of the English language Wikipedia, I put the question to you: should we also make similar forks of the Wikipedias in other languages?

Anyway, I think that, whatever Citizendia actually are created, each different Citizendium should probably adopt its own charter and have a separate management.  Once the Citizendia in a dozen or so major languages have reached that stage of development, we can have fully international meetings, with delegates from each organization.

By the way, I am not averse to considering the argument that we ought to have these organizational meetings all around the world.  I just want to make sure that the resulting projects have some important, baseline principles in common, and are interoperable.  The whole question of how to achieve internationalization is one I hope we will discuss on one of the project’s mailing lists, Citizendium-World.

While this organizational work is going on, I wish to put together the finest possible set of advisors for this project.  Their role as advisors will give them a special platform from which to advise the project and speak on its behalf.  Moreover, it is this group of people who will meet at the constitutional convention to ratify the project’s charter.

So, let us create a vibrant yet responsible new community.  Together we will, I think, have an amazing journey.  To the extent that I can influence this new community–which will, I am sure, nearly instantly take on a life of its own–I want to encourage a set of values.  These values may be grouped into sets, as follows:

  • freedom, independence, and neutrality
  • the love of knowledge, critical thinking, and respect for both expertise and for the value and ability of uncredentialed people
  • maturity, personal responsibility, common sense
  • compromise, consensus, and collegiality
  • openness, rejection of insularity, and respect for the rule of law
  • a love of simplicity, a robust dislike for bureaucracy, and not using computer algorithms (or aggregation) where individual judgment is required

The Role of Content Brokers in the Era of Free Content

Larry Sanger

Draft June 9, 2006; very lightly revised, October 2006

I. The problem of funding content

Ever since entering the open content arena in 2000, I have thought about, and been asked (repeatedly) about, how to pay for free content. This is a pressing problem for professional content creators, because of pressures from the Internet. It is worth rehearsing these pressures and their source, in order to contextualize a proposal I want to make.

Talk, or low-quality talk, is cheap. That’s why mediocre content online is so plentiful. But, as with anything, if you put a price on talk, you increase its quality. And that’s why there are (and always have been) professional communicators and artists as well as unpaid amateurs: communicators and artists produce work of different levels of quality.

The trouble about the Internet, for professional talkers, is that so many other professional-level talkers are willing to give away their talk for free. Over time, so much high-level talk is available that, as the economics of supply and demand dictate, it becomes harder and harder to pay for high-level talk. So what are the talkers supposed to do for a living?

That’s the problem of funding free content. But, as I’ll explain next, it’s really a problem about funding content, period–of getting money into the hands of content producers, period. After all, oversupply pressures are a very real practical problem for newspapers that are laying off staff, and for reference publishers and others who are made very nervous by the availability of massive amounts of free content available from Wikipedia and other such sources.

II. The traditional publishing brokerage model under threat

I invite you to think of the economics of publishing on the model of a brokerage. A broker is an agent who arranges and settles a deal between a buyer and seller. So think of the publisher as an agent who orders and arranges content from the seller–writer, speaker, artist, or whatever–and takes money from the info consumer, or the buyer.

“Talk brokers” used to be essential to the task of publishing, because most sellers (talkers) could not afford printing presses or distribution networks. The Internet changed that: now anyone with an Internet connection can get virtually unlimited bandwidth on which to rant on, to a potentially global audience, for as long as he wants. But there was still the necessity for editorial services, because the info consumers still needed someone to edit and select credible and noteworthy information. Now that, too, is changing. Aggregation a la Google News, and community editing a la Wikipedia, are providing editorial and selection services for free.

So, while the traditional role of publishers as talk brokers may never completely go away, nearly everyone agrees that it is under an increasing threat. I and many others who think a lot about collaborative content creation believe that it is only a matter of time, moreover, before professionals, including academics, jump with both feet into collaborative content creation. The Citizendium is committed to building an expert-guided version of Wikipedia, and in other ways acting as a clearinghouse for expert-vetted free information. If it succeeds, whither the traditional talk broker role of publishers?

III. A new model of publishing brokerage

Perhaps it’s sad to say, but publishers are needed less and less, not because anyone just up and said “We’ve had enough of them!” but because current technologies and methods have enabled people to get together and perform the same basic functions that publishers have performed. The roles publishers played as talk brokers–namely, their roles as editors, selectors, printers, distributors–are instead played by the general public, from students, to teachers, to civic-minded professional volunteers, and by the processes of collaboration and aggregation. If you are a communicator or artist, free content is (as you probably already know) in your future, like it or not. It might not all be free, but a lot more of it will be than is now the case. This will make it much harder for you, as communicator or artist, to get paid through the traditional content broker model, and harder for publishers to make money through their traditional content brokerage services. We have a new industrial revolution on our hands.

To say this is to describe and explain the problem of funding free content, not to solve it. So, in order to move us toward a solution, I would have us redefine the role of publisher-as-broker. It’s not that we no longer need publishers to act as brokers, it’s that the nature of the brokerage needs to change.

Let me preface this by saying that I surely can’t claim originality, because it’s an idea that naturally suggests itself to those who live in this problem space. Besides, there are already examples of this sort of thing in existence (such as Google Answers).

Since first drafting this essay, a promising new effort in this direction came to light: Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net. The following proposal is a slightly different and more generalized take on the same idea.

So here’s the proposal: the public presents an offer for a specific sum to go to someone who will write authoritatively on such-and-such a subject; the broker selects the content creator, who creates the content; and then the broker releases the content to the public, free for all (under, for example, a Creative Commons license). The buyers are still the general public, but are expanded to include groups of people, clubs, schools, universities, organizations, governments, and other entities that pay for the work on behalf of the general public. The sellers are still communicators and artists. The brokers can still include editors, designers, and other publishing industry professionals.

I’ll enlarge on how I think the ideal content brokerage system should work, but first, I should explain how this could possibly solve the economic problem posed by plentiful free content. “Suppose there is a system in place,” a critic challenges me, “where people can commission works that are then released free into the public domain. Why think that this could economically support the present set of professional content creators?”

My frank answer–the only honest answer, really–is that I have no idea how things might shake out. I’m just a philosopher; I must rely on keener economic intellects than mine to make any prognostications. What I can say is that there is a constant demand for new content, and people are willing to offer money (and to pool their money) to pay for free content even as unsexy as PBS and NPR–or for that matter, as sexy as Wikipedia. So why don’t we give it a try on a wider scale?

Why not give people a credible venue where the following scenarios could take place? It would be very low overhead simply to try it out.

IV. Some new content brokerage scenarios

  • A visual artist wants to use an obscure, more or less worthless old film that isn’t yet in the public domain. He wants a way to pay for the film to be free for everyone to use. The artist offers the money for the broker to use, and the broker approaches the copyright holder and makes a credible case that the work will always be free. The copyright holder figures he’ll never make any more money from the film, and agrees.
  • Cleveland Municipal School District wants to offer $100,000 to the person or group of people who produces an 8th grade general science textbook that is (1) released under an open content license, and (2) meets Ohio and Cleveland school standards. The school district approaches the content broker, which posts a call for proposals, chooses the best proposal, gives the writers some money up front, vets the result for quality and consistency with standards, acts as an intermediary between Cleveland schools and the writers, and finally publishes the textbook online and hands the (balance of the) money to the writers. Teenagers around the world can use a new professionally-written text for free.
  • A music aficionado wants to help digitize and release some of the holdings of a major folk music archive, but the archive says that the rights still rest with the family of the musicians. The aficionado gets together with his friends, who persuade a music organization to collect a $50,000 fund for the families of the musicians. The brokerage tracks down the family members, persuades them to release the music under a Creative Commons license, some of the archive holdings are digitized and made freely available online, and everybody’s happy.
  • Britney Spears’ fan club wants to raise $1,000,000 for Britney to record and release a new song to the public for free. Maybe they vote on a general theme or style. The fan club goes to the broker, which approaches Britney’s “people,” and the deal is made. The broker then publicizes the effort, saying that your credit card won’t be charged until the required amount is reached. When it is reached, 24 hours later, the song plays constantly everywhere. Variant: the same thing is done but for an already-published song. Fan club says: “Let’s collect $5,000,000 for ‘Oops I did it again’!”
  • The Catholic Church wants the best possible generally-accessible essay in defense of the “right to life.” It hits its members up for cash and collects an astounding $2,000,000 prize. The Church then asks a content brokerage group to manage a contest: half of the money, $1,000,000, goes to the best 25-page popular defense of the “right to life.” (You can easily imagine Planned Parenthood doing something very similar.)
  • I greatly admire the work of a certain philosopher. I would love for him to write an article addressed to a specific, recondite philosophical question, but I do not want him to know that it was I who asked or paid for the essay. Suppose I set $1,000 aside and ask a content broker to approach the person and make the deal. The philosopher writes the essay and publishes it publicly, saying that it was commissioned by a generous anonymous donor.
  • A major benefactor loves the idea of free, collaboratively-developed, up-to-date information–but wants the world to have something more authoritative than Wikipedia. He puts $50,000,000 into an escrow account for an expert-authored, collaborative, free encyclopedia, and says that when others match his donation, the total will be released to fund the effort. When others do match his donation, his foundation then uses part of the money to get a stellar group of academics and professionals together to spearhead the effort.
  • A publisher who wants to try out the new style of content brokerage publicizes a new offer: “Stephen King will release a new novel under a free license if enough fans pony up the required fee. Your credit card will not be charged unless enough money is actually produced.” (Back in 2000, King actually did something similar to this with his unfinished project, The Plant–but without the result being free.) The conditional pledges roll in at a breakneck speed, and when the magic number is reached, all the accounts are charged and King is then obliged to release the novel to everyone, for free.

I’ve only started to explore the possibilities above. In fact, let’s just say I’ve deliberately left out some very exciting possibilities. Many different kinds of media are possible to commission; many different kinds of buyers can be organized; many different kinds of content creators can be solicited (from specific people, to indefinite collaborations, to companies, etc.); many different kinds of brokerage services, from minimal to very involved.

V. The ideal content brokerage system?

One reason, perhaps, that we as a society are not commissioning more free content (apart from Public Broadcasting and Google Answers) is that we do not have a credible, visible content brokerage system in place.

There are many permutations of the general concept of content brokerage as described in sections III and IV above. If the idea is feasible and worthwhile, there might eventually be books written about how content brokerage is best managed. But I would like to make a first, amateur attempt to articulate what the ideal content brokerage system would look like. Here are some ideas.

(1) Presumably, buyers would have some incentive to employ professional content brokers–which would require that content brokers take a percentage of the amount offered, in order to pay for such things as editors and designers. Surely, if the concept becomes popular, there will be free, commissionless (and serviceless) content brokerage websites, but they will probably not be as good as those that manage the editorial and legal aspects of the work professionally.

(2) A “full-service” content brokerage would employ people who can manage all different kinds of content requests. When mature, it should employ editors and content experts who have large networks–who can quickly and reliably put their finger on the best person for commissioned jobs.

(3) The job of publisher would no doubt change considerably. Some jobs might be eliminated; new jobs would be created. But the core competencies would probably remain the same: working with authors and artists, finding people to pursue a project, building networks, design, and so forth.

(4) Content brokers should (and indeed have a business reason to) quickly develop industry standards with regard to the licensing, archiving, accessing, search, and presentation of free content. Much work remains to be done in this direction.

(5) The original copyright holder licenses the content, not the content broker. There is no need, and questionable business ethics, behind the notion of a content broker collecting much copyright itself. Its main legal role is, rather, to ensure that the terms of the exchange (money for content released under a genuine free license) are legal.

(6) Editorial decisions as to whom to award contracts should be constrained by enforceable codes of ethics. Decisionmaking should be transparent, well-documented, and easily reviewable (although not necessarily public).

(7) Communicators and artists should not be expected to work for free, or under the threat that work they spend significant time on will not be paid for. Money for commissioned work (i.e., which has not yet been created) should be placed into an escrow account, or in some other way “frozen.” Contracts should make clear exactly how and under what circumstances a buyer may ask for his money back.

Of course, people might forego brokers altogether: they might approach each others with offers of money for work delivered into the hands of the general public.

VI. Some advantages and disadvantages of the new brokerage system

The primary advantage of the new brokerage system envisioned here is that content creators and support professionals continue to get paid, even when their work is free to everyone to read and use.

One disadvantage that does not exist–though one might think at first that it does–is that there is some risk about all this. The infrastructure to manage the new style of content brokerage already exists at many publishers, Internet, and media companies. Such a company–or for that matter, a university, thinktank, or foundation–could easily circulate calls for content funding with little overhead. (O’Reilly has already done something vaguely similar with its Open Books initiative.) If no one bites, so much the worse for this idea. But I suspect that there are many school districts, philanthropists, and many others, to say nothing of the ordinary people who regularly contribute to charities, who might find the idea very compelling.

One disadvantage, and it might be a deep one, is that if this new way of publishing were to win a hegemony, it would be difficult for unknown writers and artists to gain recognition except through publishing a lot without payment. But, under this new scheme, it would become de rigeur for artists to have websites in which people can access their work and where people can pay them for work already done. It would be like tipping–and that’s only polite.

The ramifications are difficult to calculate; I leave further discussion of them to others or for later. What does seem clear is that it is worth thinking seriously about doing this. If it works in general, it will work in a thousand different ways.