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.