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g guillaume paumier

Wikimedia Commons licensing tutorial

the making-of

A few days ago, I announced the publication of the English version of an illustrated licensing tutorial for Wikimedia Commons. The tutorial was developed as part of the Multimedia usability project I’ve been working on for the past year. This article invites you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the licensing tutorial project.


Because all Wikimedia projects are based on free licenses, Wikimedians have developed a particular expertise in this field, and in copyright in general. One of my favorite quotes about Wikimedians is from Sue Gardner’s keynote session at Wikimania 2009 in Buenos Aires:

You all know more about copyright law than any sane, sensible human being.

We do. And it’s hard to remember how little we knew about copyright a few years ago, when we had just started to edit. Back then, most of us had never heard about the GFDL, or about Creative Commons. Back then, we had never heard of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. or the Place des Terreaux case.[1]

Copyright law is an incredibly complicated topic, especially in an international context. We’ve grown accustomed to it, but the learning curve is very steep for new users.

Wikimedians generally like to be thorough, but we can’t expect new participants to read dozens of documentation pages before uploading a picture.[2] We needed to create a high-level introduction that presented the basics without misrepresenting the complexity of copyright. No jargon, no legal precedents, no country-specific idiosyncrasies. There would be no “freedom of panorama” or “threshold of originality” here.

During the early stages of the licensing tutorial project, we even decided to ban the words “copyright” and “free licenses” altogether: they’re misunderstood and misinterpreted so often that we chose to explain these concepts in plain English, using practical examples. It was also consistent with our wish to provide plain-English descriptions of licenses in the upload wizard.

I started with a purposely short list of main points that we wanted to cover in the tutorial, and asked experienced participants to review them. The list was effectively a summary based on my own experience and a review of the existing instructions and documentation available on Commons. Then, we met with our illustrator to discuss the general approach and to agree on the rough content.

A collaborative effort

Finding an illustrator wasn’t an easy task. We had several non-negotiable requirements, listed in our Call for proposals. For example, we needed to find an artist willing to release their final artwork under a free license. We also had time and budget constraints.

With the help of Jay Walsh (our Head of Communications), we were able to find a talented illustrator who aligned with our values and met our requirements: Michael Bartalos, an illustrator from San Francisco, who had notably done some pretty awesome work for the California Academy of Sciences.

Michael was extremely accommodating with our hands-on, iterative and open process. Wikimedians are used to completely open, very inclusive processes, but it isn’t as natural in other fields, particularly in art-related disciplines. In the world of illustration, in particular, you usually try to keep all your preliminary and in-progress artwork secret to prevent other people from stealing your still-rough ideas.

Luckily, Michael and I were able to find a middle ground. We agreed not to publish the in-progress designs, and he agreed to let us share them privately with members of our community interested in providing feedback.

I explained the context and reasons honestly on the Commons mailing list and Village pump, and the participants were very sympathetic to these constraints. I invited people to sign up if they were interested in providing feedback, so they could receive a link to the artwork. Most of the people who signed up did write useful comments, and all of them respected our request not to republish it. The feedback they provided was very constructive and of high quality.

We went through this process a few times, first to comment on the general approach and content, then to focus on specific details of wording and graphics.

I found that it helped immensely to ask specific questions to commenters. I structured the page into specific sections and most commenters naturally added their feedback in the appropriate place. I initiated the sections with my own comments, in order to save other people’s time.

Some comments were similar, while others were in disagreement. The preparation made it easier to provide the illustrator with a consolidated summary to help him work on the next version without having to deal with long discussions and contradictory statements.

Translation and localization

Once the English version was ready, the translation process started. Casey Brown and I prepared the translation framework and provided detailed pieces of advice, in order to inform translators and help them with this particular translation request.

I used to be a Wikimedia translator myself, and I knew how effective they were. Still, I was amazed to discover that, after only three days, about 20 translations of the text had been completed. Furthermore, they had already integrated the translations in about a dozen localized versions of the artwork.

As it turns out, the coordination page containing advice and instructions proved to be very helpful to translators, and well worth the time I had invested in it. About eighteen localized versions are available now, and more are underway.

What’s next?

The real test, of course, will be when new participants are presented with the tutorial. Will they like it? Will they read it, or jump directly to the next step? Will the tutorial be successful in helping them learn what we want to teach?

So far, we haven’t formally tested it. We were hoping to conduct a study on the tutorial and the latest version of our upload wizard prototype, but we had to postpone it. I do hope we’ll be able to measure the impact of the tutorial at a later point. Still, the enthusiasm with which the tutorial has been welcomed is, it seems, a good sign.

I hope this summary will be helpful to people conducting similar projects. I feel the interaction with the rest of the community has been quite smooth during the whole project. It would be presumptuous to think it was only because I’ve been a long-time community member myself, but it sure helped to speak the same language as the users’.

More generally, the Multimedia usability project was the first engineering project of the Wikimedia Foundation with a Product Manager on its team. I feel this role has played a critical bridging role between the users and the rest of the team, to everyone’s benefit. I’d love to see this happening more regularly in WMF-driven projects.

My own lessons learned, in a nutshell:

  • Trust the Power of The Crowd.

  • Collaboration is worth the effort.