Does Open License Mean Open Season?

    November 16, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

The unattributed verbatim appearance of a Wikipedia article in a book from a major publisher sparked accusations of plagiarism, and raises more serious issues of ethics as well as the perils of publishing under open licenses.

Does Open License Mean Open Season?
Does Open License Mean Open Season?

Slashdot blew the whistle on John Wiley and Sons (Wiley) and author George Orwel (note the one "L") for publishing a Wikipedia article on the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The article appeared without attribution in Orwel’s Black Gold: The New Frontier in Oil for Investors as though they were Orwel’s words, and not the collective writers of the article on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia contributor "Ydorb," who prefers to remain anonymous, says he wrote much, but not all, of the text that appeared in Black Gold, and provides a side-by-side comparison at Wikipedia. Ydorb says he was informed of the situation via another contributor who had read the book, prompting him to put together the comparison page.

In response to a WebProNews inquiry, Wiley’s Susan Spilka issued the following statement:

"In Black Gold by George Orwel, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., published a credentialed author and a thoroughly-sourced book.  However, it appears that a specific passage from Wikipedia was inadvertently added by our author to the text without attribution. George Orwel has assured us this was not intentional and has asked that we rectify the situation. Wiley will provide corrections to all future reprints of this book and make the changes to the ebook version.

"We take this situation very seriously.  We earn our readers’ trust by producing quality works by reputable authors.   On rare occasions, mistakes happen.  When they happen, we appreciate being alerted and do what is necessary to rectify any problems."

While it appears that Wiley will be doing just that, the incident brings up some important issues regarding open licenses used for collaborative works, including software, on the Internet. Because of the terms of the licensing agreement and the nature of the work, Ydorb and other contributors may have had no other recourse aside from media coverage.

Like much open source software, Wikipedia content is licensed under GNU Free Documentation License, also known as "copyleft." This type of licensing says that content can be reused or repurposed verbatim, either commercially or non-commercially "so long as the new version grants the same freedoms to others and acknowledges the authors of the Wikipedia article used (a direct link back to the article satisfies our author credit requirement)."

But what if the attribution requirement is not met? Who will pursue the matter of infringement?

 Wikipedia says not them. Though the staff at the Wikimedia Foundation found the situation "frustrating," spokespersons agreed the company "doesn’t really take any position on this. It is not the copyright holder, the individuals who wrote the article in question are. They have licensed their contributions to the Foundation to get them into Wikipedia.

"Realistically all these folks can do if they feel aggrieved is appeal to public opinion via the media, it is expensive to pursue a copyright infringement case, and for material under GFDL the process would not be to extract money from the plagiarist, but to make them release their work under a compatible license."

And then there’s the problem of multiple anonymous contributors. "That it’s been edited raises very big factual questions," Technology and Marketing Law blogger Eric Goldman tells WebProNews. "Who did what to whom?" And because it’s under an open license, "it’s a little hard to object if somebody actually takes it."

At least in the case of the Khobar Towers article, it is clear that non-attribution is cause for infringement of the license. But there’s nobody willing to pursue the case, and if attribution is made eventually, it becomes a sort of no-harm-no-foul situation.

"This is a really great example of some of the problems with taking content off the Internet," says Goldman. "The publisher may not realize they’re giving their stuff away."