New Research Shows How Copyright Law Is Keeping Useful Info Off Wikipedia

from the too-bad dept

The Atlantic has an interesting article about some forthcoming research from MIT PhD student Abhishek Nagaraj (though, oddly, the article never introduces him, never mentions his first name, and just refers to him throughout by his last name only). It’s the latest in an increasingly long line of evidence showing how copyright is stifling content and keeping it from reaching the public in useful ways. Nagaraj found a particularly useful natural experiment in the archives of Baseball Digest “the oldest and longest-running journal of matters baseball-related,” which has been published continuously since 1942. For various reasons (sounds like they didn’t renew…) the issues from 1942 until 1964 are in the public domain. Everything after that… not so much. Google’s book scanning project scanned nearly every issue from July 1945 until 2008.

Nagaraj realized that Wikipedians were using this as good source material for Wikipedia pages — especially on the profiles of older baseball players. He noted that there was little stopping the text from being rewritten, but the real issue was around images. People could use the scanned images to illustrate the profiles, but clearly they could only use the public domain ones without permission.

But Nagaraj found was that the availability of public domain material dramatically improved the article’s images. Before the digitization, players from between ’44 and ’64 had an average of .183 pictures on their articles. The ’64 to ’84 group had about .158 pictures. But after digitization, those numbers dramatically changed: there were 1.15 pictures on each of the older group’s articles — but only .667 in the new group. More recent players, covered by privately-owned parts of Baseball Digest, had half as many images on their pages as did old-timers.

And, yes, the article notes that he put in place various controls to correct for unrelated differences. Basically, the only observable difference in why the pages have more images is the public domain status of some of those works vs. others. Some might argue that this is no big deal, but he found a second bit of useful data s well:

And the effects of this — of just having an image on the page — cascaded to other metrics. “Out-of-copyright” players’s pages saw a significant boost in traffic. Articles from the pre-’64 that were already in the top 10 percent saw their hits increase more than 70 percent. Articles from that group in the least-popular ten percent saw traffic to their articles increase by 25 percent. Those pages were more frequently edited across the board, too. And this makes sense: Google rewards updated content, and it rewards images. The out-of-copyright players provided more of both.

I’m reminded, yet again, of that chart of the now infamous gap in books under copyright that you can’t find any more — even though older books in the public domain are widely available. Once again, we’re seeing not only the massive value of the public domain, but how much useful content is being locked away by excessively strict (and excessively long) copyright law.

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Comments on “New Research Shows How Copyright Law Is Keeping Useful Info Off Wikipedia”

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103 Comments
Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

AC said: “Copyright law is keeping , everything from evrybody, Sing “happy Birthday” to your child, and get sued. Tis is not Realy News.”
Another AC said: “Warner Music Group has that tune”
The public’s had that tune since 1936, actually. What WMG has is a tenuous claim on the lyrics. I’ve said it before, but here goes:

This tune’s Public Domain
This tune’s Public Domain
So it’s free, WMG
‘Cos it’s Public Domain!

Copyright ? 2010 Romersa’s Prot?g?. Individuals and groups are free to copy, share, and perform this work for non-commercial purposes. All other rights reserved.
Adapted from ‘Good Morning to All’
AKA ‘Happy Birthday to You’; Public
Domain.

Yartrebo (profile) says:

An Anecdote

This effect can be see very clearly if you look at the dates for a lot of the biology-related images in Wikipedia. An awful lot date from the early 1900s, from various now-public domain textbooks and encyclopedias.

For example, most of the pictures in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Femur are from the 1918 edition of Gray’s anatomy.

I’m pretty sure it isn’t out of some massive epidemic of nostalgia on the part of Wikipedians, but rather that the long term of copyright means that reference sources from the roaring 20s onwards are off-limits.

Anonymous Coward says:

I find it a bit unnerving that we need a research to show how exclusionary rules are a barrier.

Despite claims to the contrary IP laws limit the availability of everything, that is the rule the exception is when for some reason the contrary is true, which may happen in a very specific set of circumstances that are rare.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not that this has much to do with copyright but um.. has anyone else noticed an alarming number of executive orders from the White House, lately?

http://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/executive-orders

Particularly in the one about Russian enriched uranium, you’ll notice the president casually declaring a state of emergency. hmmm. I don’t recall any news agencies mentioning that.

ebilrawkscientist (profile) says:

Re: article

The article is not “dumb”, IMHO. The idea is to make people AWARE of the insidious creeping dystopian DOOM that is stalking the “Interwebs Freedoms of Expression of Everybeing on the Planet.” You must realize from the ‘verse of Twitteratti teh tweeples abroad will recieve the messages all powerful and RESPOND with vitrol to quell the creepy corporative buzzkill that strives to oppress all that is good and free on this ball of mud! Knowledge wants to be FREE! And Sharing is Caring!

Anonymous Coward says:

Thank goodness copyright exists or else we wouldn’t have those great baseball magazines to begin with. And the fact that some copyrighted photo can’t be used on Wikipedia is a problem how? You do realize that copyright means the right to exclude others by design, right, Pirate Mike? I know you’re completely confused about who copyright benefits FIRST, but the owner of the right is the one who gets the initial benefit. It’s hilarious to see you whine that the system that by design excludes others is actually excluding others. Next you’re going to tell me that bank vaults keep the money safely locked within, only to be accessed by those with permission. SHOCKING! Sorry, Pirate Mike, but this is more whining.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I do believe in artists’ rights. I stand by them when people violate their rights. I don’t make any excuses for the pirates like Pirate Mike, who champions the wrongdoers. I’m not trying to be creative. I’m trying to defend artists’ rights. In a piratical shithole like Techdirt, such beliefs are not understood and are strongly resisted. Nobody hates artists’ rights more than Pirate Mike. He never supports an artist who enforces his rights. He always sides with the pirates. It’s absolutely disgusting, esp. the way that he lies about it. What a truly disgusting human being.

surfer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: never

I don’t ask for excuses from Mr. Masnick, nor do I give a fuck about your ‘exclusive privilege’. When you return copyright to its’ intended purpose, I will consider respecting it, until then, I’m off to download ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, and anything else I want, just to piss you off.

My rights cancel your privilege, have a great day.

Anonymous 314159 says:

Re: Re:

The article is arguing specifically that the insanely long duration of copyright is the problem. According to the US Constitution, Congress has the power

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

(Article 1, Section 8; emphasis added).
This article is arguing that the length of copyright (ie, the fact that it really is no longer for “limited Times”) is hindering “the Progress of Science and useful Arts”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Copyright is for a limited time. It’s right there in Title 17. And it’s only hindering progress if you look at it short term. Of course, while something is under copyright, it’s locked up. That’s what copyright does–it on purpose and by design locks up stuff. That’s what “exclusive rights” means in the Constitution. To complain that copyright is broken because it’s locking up stuff is twisted, Masnickian, backwards-thinking nonsense.

arcan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

got to love how you seem to make a semi-intelligent sounding argument by not actually arguing against what the guy said. the locking up is not the issue. it is the length of how long it is locked up is the issue. 10 years would be more than enough to secure the content protection necessary to get artists and inventors to create things. the moment that patents and copyright does not promote the progress of science and useful arts, it the moment that it directly violates the constitution. the current life plus 50 years for copyright and 20 years for a patent are way longer than is necessary. do you really think that a lot less musicians would create music if they only got 20 years of exclusivity vs up to maybe 130 years? (assuming they were 20 when they created it and lived to 100, it is actually possible that it could be locked up even longer.)For patents in the late 1700s and early 1800s 20 years might actually be a decent patent length because actual innovation did not happen as often. but now 20 years in the advance of technology is equivalent to a century in the past. at the rate we innovate (i use that term lightly, because most of what is considered innovation is really just the next logical step in tech) most patents serve to do nothing more but to extort cash from people who actually do stuff for a living. if you want to contest go ahead and try you got nothing.
now i just have this to say.
Logic’d bitch.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You call life + 75 years limited?
You call misappropriation of derivatives limited?
You call paying levies that are pirate taxes on everybody limited?
You can evermore expanding interpretations of what can be excluded limited?

So we are clear, we have very different notions of what limited means.

gnudist says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Yeah, there’s no other reason to have retroactive extensions except to curcumvent the limited times requirement of the copyrigth clause.

The fact the work was created without the extension shows that the length of copyright already in effect before the extension was enough incentive for the copyright holder to create the work.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

The argument about the extensions violating the limited times provision has been tried. It failed. Ask Lessig. Yes, the work was created without the extension, but if you read the opinions on this, you’ll see that there’s more going on than just incentivizing new works. The Court doesn’t take that strict of a view. You guys lost miserably on these constitutional arguments. Strange that you still try and make them after a majority of the Supreme Court has shot them down.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Supreme court was wrong to issue that decision.

If you allow congress to kepp extending copyrigth at will then you have no limited times because they can just up the expiration date thus granting unlimited copyright without granting unlimited copyrigth.

And promoting new works is the thing congress is enpowered to do under the copyrigth act, anything that goes against that would be judged unconstitutional by a copetent and non corrupt supreme court.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Yes, if you disagree with the Supreme Court, they are incompetent and corrupt.

It doesn’t take an incompetent or corrupt Court to determine that Congress has the power to determine what is necessary and proper in effectuating a Constitutionally-approved goal.

I know that people who disagree with Congress would really like the Supreme Court to swoop in and institute their judgment on what makes the best law, but that’s not how the system is designed to work.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

If the supreme court let’s congress keep extending copyirhght terms every time it’s about to expire despite the consitution not allowing unlimited copyright then it is only the result of incompetent judges who don’t understand the power they just gave congress or there is a confilct of interest somewhere.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The magazine is alive and well (although apparently just barely): https://baseballdigest.com/storefront/ Looks like they don’t give it away. Instead, they have this crazy ass business model. They create a product that people want–a magazine–and then they sell that product to consumers who want it. It’s crazy! What are they thinking? I mean, computers can copy stuff and I have a big hard drive. Why don’t they just create that content for free? Idiots. They deserve to get ripped off. Just ask Pirate Mike. They asked for it, and they have driven the pirates into violating their rights. It’s not the pirates’ fault! They were driven by their victims! I mean, the pirates are the victims! Yeah, that’s it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You do not have a moral rigth to not have people copy you and it’s an absurd notion to think you do.

If copying is stealing then competition is theft since you must do some degree of copying to compete. For example:

– A mexican restaurant and a chinese restaurant must both copy the basic concept of what a restaurant is and a direct competitor of either of the first two types must copy the style of cuisine.

– a smartphone must copy the concepts of a cellphone(naturally) and the idea of running software from your phone

– first person shooters copy a number of things such as having a generally standard set of weapons which themselves are based on real life weapons or ceatures

– and don’t get me started on movies and TV massive amounts of copying abound there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You copied the letter that appear on your keyboard to send your message. You are a nasty person for copying.

Your ideas are meaningless, because you are confusing GENERAL concepts with specific ones. A specific image, a specific written story, a specific performance, those are key. The general concept of images, the general concepts of writing a story or recording a song are not.

You suck at this stuff. Try again.

Anonymous Coward says:

What I don’t get is this: Anyone can go to the ball park, buy a reasonable ticket, and take all the pictures they like of the players, and GIVE them to Wikipedia. What’s the problem?

In fact, if they contacted the players themselves (or their orgasnizations) I am sure they have publicity photos which could be used.

I get more of the feeling that people are lazy, and would rather lift the information from wherever, rather than actually develop a proper source. That’s the Wikipedia disadvantage, people taking shortcuts.

abc gum says:

Re: Re:

“go to the ball park, buy a reasonable ticket, and take all the pictures they like “

Have you actually done this?

“people are lazy”

and water is wet

“would rather lift the information from wherever, rather than actually develop a proper source. That’s the Wikipedia disadvantage, people taking shortcuts.”

Proper source people, yeah that’s the ticket. No more lazy pirating of past research, one must reinvent the wheel at every occasion. Oh and btw, Wikipedia is the only place people take shortcuts leading to its “disadvantage”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“”go to the ball park, buy a reasonable ticket, and take all the pictures they like “

Have you actually done this?”

I have gone to sporting events, and taken pictures, some of which are good enough for publication, yes.

“Proper source people, yeah that’s the ticket. No more lazy pirating of past research, one must reinvent the wheel at every occasion. “

It’s not a question of re-inventing the wheel. If you want publicity pics of a player, ask his team. They almost always have some. Most of them would LOVE to help you out, especially on past players. It’s good for them.

Wikipedia isn’t the only place – but it’s the biggest.

abc gum says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“have gone to sporting events, and taken pictures, some of which are good enough for publication, yes.”

Hopefully this will continue to be the case … however, just try that at other locations and you will be accosted by the picture police. They use many excuses, from copyright to terrorism, but the result is the same – they get to harass you and suffer little consequence. Several courts have ruled that it is not illegal to photograph things in public but the picture police do not care about the law.

When I read this blog post, I took it as just another of many examples of how copyright is being abused. Pointing out how one item in the post is arguable (pictures at ballgames) does not mean the entire post is trash.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I guess if you are going to live your life totally concerned that the “picture police” are out to get you, then there is no way that I can convince you otherwise.

I would recommend you be careful which brand of tin foil you use for your hat, some of them are purposely poorly made as to let the signals get through, so those voices can talk to you all night. You know, the ones you are listening to right now.

abc gum says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Yes, I am a nutter and wear tin foil hats – lol – you are so funny and original. So, you dispute that there are many cases of private security, TSA, Transit Authority, Police, etc over stepping their bounds in accosting tourists, journalists, artists, children and grannies for the gross infraction of taking pictures in public? Please elucidate, this should be interesting. Let me guess … next you will tell me that no one has ever been arrested for dancing in public.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

You don’t have to travel in time. Remarkably, there were actually people at those events, and they took pictures. Newspapers, the teams themselves, the players themselves… they all have pictures that have been taken of them.

Cameras weren’t just invented, and nobody had a monopoly use of a single camera.

Matt T. (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What I don’t get is this: Anyone can go to the ball park, buy a reasonable ticket, and take all the pictures they like of the players, and GIVE them to Wikipedia. What’s the problem?

I’m sure wikipedia contributors do that: today. But the article concerns players from the 1964-1984 time period, a time which is decidedly not today.

maclypse (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Of course you know by now that for example the olympics don’t actually allow you to bring any use of any privately recorded pictures or video, and that people are being sued by public figures because the pictures they take aren’t flattering enough. Right? Taking the pictures yourself is a) legally fucking dangerous and b) only really possible if you can afford to fly out to actually see the event, which may be hard if you live … oh, just about anywhere in the world. God forbid we let anyone have an interest that reaches outside their own city.

Asking people for publicity photos is a daft and dangerous solution. It gives the copyright holders the option to add demands for the use of the photos (don’t mention the steroids or else) or to charge for the use of the photos, or worse, decide to refuse publication of the photos altogether because they don’t like the site, the author or the subject matter.

Anyway… photos of public figures doing things in public should be fair use anyway, so all this jumping through copyright hoops shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. But this of course is the way some people want things: illegal to take photos, illegal to use other people’s photos, and if you ask to use someone’s PR photos – you must pay licensing fees, and obey their demands to censor your own work according to their wishes. It’s fucking beautiful, isn’t it? Also, let’s not forget that we are now trying to grant famous people additional copyrights to protect them even more.

But sure, let’s take the easy way out and decide the system is good, and people are lazy. That explains everything.

GearMentation (profile) says:

It’s very difficult to upload any image to Wikipedia, you have to jump through all sorts of copyright hoops. One of the greatest barriers to writing Wikipedia articles is that you can’t get the source material, it’s either not on the internet due to copyright, or it’s behind a pay barrier, especially with scientific texts. It’s hard. And the cost in time and energy of going to a library, then trying to translate from those paper sources to online is pretty high (impossible for many especially outside the US). It’s volunteer work after all, how much time and energy do you have?

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