Saturday, July 21, 2007

How not to get free content

Once upon a time, some years ago, a now-defunct communist regime sent some space probes to visit a planet not far from here. Those probes gathered some very interesting images, albeit with some quality issues, due to the rather difficult conditions in which the probes operated.

Some years later, a computer programmer, one Don P. Mitchell, applied his apparently not insignificant skills at image processing to improve the quality of these images. He published these images on a website of his own, with copyright reserved to himself. Subsequently to that, some other person uploaded some of those images to Wikipedia, disregarding the fact that Mr. Mitchell's license is not compatible with Wikipedia's licensing requirements. Someone else noticed that Don Mitchell actually had a user account and actually edits Wikipedia, and pointed out to him that the images had been uploaded and that the license wasn't suitable for continued inclusion. This led to Mr. Mitchell offering them to be used "on Wikipedia, for non-commercial use". Of course, this isn't consistent with Wikipedia's licensing policy.

Here's where the cart went off the rails: instead of being asked to license the images under one of the licenses that Wikipedia recognizes as free, Mr. Mitchell was given the impression that the only choice he had was to release them to the public domain. He was unwilling to do so (a perfectly reasonable position). The original correspondent then offered that they could be used as "fair use" (even those this is also inconsistent with Wikipedia's image use policies), and so no further discussion was had. This unfortunate state of affairs is where the issue left off until last week.

Last week, Danny Wool noticed that the images were being used as fair use without a legitimate fair use justification (and, really, there isn't one: there's a perfectly valid free substitute, the original unimproved Venera images, which are in the public domain) and removed them from the Venus article, and the images were subsequently deleted as orphaned nonfree content.

Mr. Mitchell is a retired researcher, having previously worked for Bell Labs and Microsoft Labs. His blog is actually quite interesting, covering a number of interesting topics (at least to me). He also appears to have had papers published by the ACM; it's evident to me that this guy is highly knowledgeable in several interesting areas and is exactly the sort of person who should be encouraged to edit Wikipedia. The fact that he continues to do so even after not only this incident, but also the kneejerk deletion of the article about him (which he did not create), is a testament to his patience -- or at least his resistance to drama. (See his talk page for more details.)

I sincerely hope that Mr. Mitchell isn't chased away by this, and I also hope that we can arrange for him to release his work under a free license like the GFDL. It would be a shame if the incompetence of these other editors chases away a valuable contributor such as him.


  1. You summed up the situation well, and we hope Wikipedia is going to have authors such as him. It seems WP is trying to clean up its image situation. My queston is, is WP learning from this mistake and others and improving itself? I would consider it acceptable to make mistakes as long as the number of them are decreasing

  2. If you're under the impression Mitchell is unbiased, please consider his précis of FSF and GNU history:

    In the mid 1980s, UNIX and the C programming language spread rapidly, consuming the academic and hacker cultures centered around DEC and IBM operating systems and the LISP language. The MIT AI Lab was particularly marginalized by the success of UNIX, and frustrations there smoldered for years to come. An anti-unix movement called GNU began, but all it produced were duplicates of the UNIX commands (bison for yacc, gcc for pcc, groff for troff). An operating system kernel was promised but never completed. GNU's founder Richard Stallman visited the hated Bell Labs, and many of us were disturbed by his behavior and personality. I thought he was a megalomaniac. When Rob Pike made a reciprocal visit to MIT, his talk was disrupted by heckling from Stallman and his followers.

    One has to admire it as casual obloquy, but it's a useless summary of Stallman, GNU, and the extraordinary revolution he precipitated. Perhaps Mitchell, an ex-Microsoft Researcher, is bitter about something...

  3. Hmm. Is image processing to improve quality, however effective it may be, considered a creative act under U.S. law? Perhaps Mitchell has no valid copyright to begin with.

  4. If you are curious about this work:

    Wikipedia has had my permission to use the images. I aways license my work for free, but I don't like being told that I MUST give my work away. But as "toby" points out, I am obviously a bad person. :-)


  5. I looked at the wikipedia pages, and am still not quite sure what happened.

    It looks like some people had the idea that my images were just a photoshop touch-up of the Soviet images. That is not the case.

    The man who actually built the Venera camera system sent me the raw telemetry. There were several transmissions of the data, which I merged and repaired in various ways. For example, I discovered that a lot of the "noise" was actually just loss of bit syncronization, which I was able to restore using parity bit data. I was especially happy to restore some lost scan lines on some of the Venera-14 images.

    Some transmissions appeared to be a botched error-correction-coded signal, and I was also able to analyze that and extract some correct pixel values where the other transmissions had noise.

    I calculated a new an more accurate camera photometric response function, using some techniques recently discovered in computer vision. This brought out a lot of detail that was blown into white or black by the original Soviet data processing. Alexander Basilevsky, the Russian planetologist, was surprised to see a ridge of distant hills, which he never knew were there before!

    This work took several months, off and on, using a variety of special purpose C++ programs.

    So I felt no twinge of guilt adding a copyright, but I am always mindful that I have not done anything as impressive as my friend Yuri who built the Venera camera!

  6. Wikipedia's image policy is just plain abortion.

  7. Seems to be a 'Seattle' attitude. Copy or use someone else's work, then copyright it as your own. The anti-gpl attitude says it all, but what could you honestly expect going by the previous employment!