Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Wiley, Wikipedia (and I) Via Newsweek

In the fair use story that just won’t die, my internet romp over the use of a figure from the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture was mentioned in this story on Newsweek now. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this article in The Scientist describes that incident factually. The Newsweek story’s main focus, however, is a small dust up where a book published by Wiley appeared to have two pages plagarized from Wikipedia. The offending passage was noticed by the wiki’s author, Ydorb, who noted the identical text on a Wikipedia forum. From there it was submitted to Slashdot who publicly wondered who’s fault it was, and if it was even illegal to copy something from a free public forum, even for profit.

Ydorb wrote, “I wrote much of the copied text … Complicating any charge of copyright violation is the fact that I have released most of my contributions into the public domain. Even if this is legally not a copyright violation, it is an ethical problem for an established reporter.”

The author and Wiley acknowledged the error, which they said was unintentional, and that future copies would not contain the passage. In my opinion this is more of an oversight of the author than of Wiley, but I also don’t know all the ins and outs here.

The incident brings up an interesting possibility: would it be illegal to compile an entire book from Wikipedia articles, sell it, and keep the money, without attribution? Of course, ethically, I would hope that reporters and authors would see a problem with it. But legally, I doubt there’s much recourse.


  1. #1 Zombie
    November 19, 2007

    I thought Wikipedia had an explicit Creative Commons license which laid out the conditions for re-using Wikipedia content?

  2. #2 Zombie
    November 19, 2007

    GNU Free Documentation License.

    Post first, then fact-check!

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    November 19, 2007

    I agree, Shelley. It seems that the author is trying to pawn it off on Wiley by saying they own the book, but I guarantee that Orwel owns the copyright. (In fact, yes, if you go to Amazon and look inside, Orwel holds the copyright).

    Congratulations on your quotes and for your role in Wiley’s initial education on the “new media.” Brian Braiker was pretty tough on them – hope you get plenty of link love from the article.

  4. #4 Shelley Batts
    November 19, 2007

    Thanks for linking to the GNU liscence, Zombie. Its full of more legalese than I would like, although the preamble states:

    “The purpose of this License is to make a manual, textbook, or other functional and useful document “free” in the sense of freedom: to assure everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially. Secondarily, this License preserves for the author and publisher a way to get credit for their work, while not being considered responsible for modifications made by others.”

    I assume that that grants someone who wishes to copy the document for profit, the right to do so, but ought to cite the source?

  5. #5 Kevin
    November 19, 2007

    My first visit to your blog was after reading about your run in with wiley earlier this year. As for it being the fair use story that just won’t die—there is a political/economic/legal battle waging over copyrights and their application in the digital age. Whether you intended it or not, your story has become part of the public discussion about fair use.

    Speaking on copyright infringement, John Tehranian, a law professor at the University of Utah, calculates in a new paper that he rings up $12.45 million in liability PDF over the course of an average day. The gap between what the law allows and what social norms permit is so great now that “we are, technically speaking, a nation of infringers.”

  6. #6 Zombie
    November 19, 2007

    IANAL, but I believe the license requires both citation and inclusion of the license for that portion in the derived work.

  7. #7 Tierhon
    November 20, 2007

    From the wikipedia page for GFDL: “It is the counterpart to the GNU General Public License that gives readers the same rights to copy, redistribute and modify a work and requires all copies and derivatives to be available under the same license. Copies may also be sold commercially, but if produced in larger quantities (greater than 100) then the original document or source code must be made available to the work’s recipient”

  8. #8 Azkyroth
    November 22, 2007

    The gap between what the law allows and what social norms permit is so great now that “we are, technically speaking, a nation of infringers.”

    This should be easy enough to fix. Just lean on legislators enough, or, if worst comes to worst, wait for the people whose understanding of the world was crystallized in adamantium before digital information and the sharing thereof became part of the common experience to die off. Only problem with that approach is that at the rate we’re going, by then the copyright duration will be “the probable lifetime of the universe plus 75 years.”

    At the very least, though, we can manifest a little critical thought when The Nice Nice People With The Winning Smiles And The Obvious Ulterior Motives blithely equate noncommercial duplication of digital information with forcibly taking possession of another person’s physical property (“theft”).

  9. #9 trrll
    November 22, 2007

    As far as I know, copyright law doesn’t really care whether or not you cite the source–that is an issue of ethics and scholarship rather than a legal one.

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