Do Your Wikipedia Donations Fund a Crusade on Intellectual Property Rights?

Sometimes on Wikipedia, there’s a polite request for donations. Obviously, it costs money to operate a big website like that with no ad revenue or anything, so it relies on its users’ generosity. Except a court case in Sweden this Monday suggests the money is not all spent on servers and tech staff.

Wikimedia – the foundation that runs Wikipedia – was taken to court by Bildupphovsrätt, a Swedish copyright society representing artists, for violation of intellectual property law in the mash-up site Offentlig Konst which posts images of public artworks to a map of Sweden. Following a series of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled Wikimedia’s photo database has commercial value and is therefore an infringement on the author’s right to the economic outcome of her work. Wikimedia’s spokesperson Anna Troberg (former party leader of … wait for it… The Pirate Party!) was quick to call the ruling a violation of human rights and – despite the protests of the Supreme Court judges – claimed that selfies on social media with public artworks in background would now be illegal. (Of course those would not be considered commercial in most cases, and even if they did it would likely be the platform provider that should pay the license.) All of that is of course to be expected, but here’s the twist: the license fee for all art photos on the database was only a few hundred Euros per year. That’s right, Wikimedia chose to spend hundreds of thousands on legal fees rather than to pay this symbolic license. So this case was not driven by economy, but by principle. It is hard not to think that Wikimedia has a problem with the basic idea that creators should be paid in the first place (which by the way would be in line with other legal fights Wikimedia has picked in the past).

So Wikipedia is about free information? Or at least that is the impression I got. That’s great*, as long as the contributors share their work for free voluntarily. The problem comes when Wikipedia wants to use the works of others without permission nor payment. That’s a different story altogether. With the money Wikimedia just spent on lawyers, it could have paid the license fee for the art photos for a hundred years. At least now you know how Wikimedia spends your donations.


*) Okay, before you point it out: there are many objections one can have to this: the monolithic nature of the service, the edit wars, the bots, the Western-centric view, the dodgy definition of facts, the fact that it puts competing perspectives out of business and more. But still, Wikipedia has a lot of merits – there are plenty of links to it here on Netopia!