Aug 25, 2009

Preeliminary survey results of ICT use by social movements in Pittsburgh - update

A month ago I released the preliminary results with ~10% response rate and promised that I'll release new results when we cross magical numbers of ~20% and (target) ~30%. Now we are midway at ~20% and hence I'd like to update you the new insights gained from the survey.

Before I go into the numbers, first, an interesting observation that comes from some interviews / phone conversations I recently had with some of the respondents. Many do not consider their organization a part of a "social movement" - yet at the same time they are happy to be listed as a group for "social justice and change" on TMC website. This shows that there is an interesting difference between academic (ivory tower...) definition of what a social movement is, and what an average person (activist...) thinks of it. Plus, from the academic perspective, there is the problem of blurry boundaries - some organizations may be seen as not part of the movement itself, but rather, of the allied "movement community", which can be best understood as the attitude "we are not activists, but we broadly support them". And since in real life it is often difficult to distinguish where the movement stops and the community begins, it is understandable that my survey will reach both spectrums - which I think is fine, as community organizations are no less important (if less showcased) than the movement ones. So if you are not sure if your organization is part of the movement, you can rest assured that as long as you are fine with being listed on TMC list, you are part of the larger community that I am interested in :)

Now, back to business. With the response rate doubling, what has changed?
* a few newer organizations have replied (out of 19 respondents, 3 are in the "our organization is 2 years or younger group", and 16 are in "our organization is 5 years or older group")
* as for areas of focus, environment (9 respondents), health (7) and community and social services (7) are still among the most popular, but have been joined by education (7) and human rights (7).
* so what's unimportant? Culture (4), intellectual property / free culture (6), Internet / network neutrality / digital divide (6) and religion (4) were all selected but ranked only in the third tier ("Least important" - but still important enough to be ranked as third), and
economy / promoting business / labor / trade and commerce (6) is in the middle tier
* ~75% of organizations indicate they have non-members (supporters) who participate in their organization activities, about half have non-members who recruit others for the organization
* at this point, for every new innovative technology I suggest (from blogs through video-sharing sites, wikis to Twitter) there are respondents who indicate their organization finds it useful for something.

For the results to be considered reliable for academic research, a responce ratio of 30% is needed (which translates in ~10 more people taking the survey). Hopefully, in about a month, I'll be able to report that the local survey is done, and move on to my second stage - the international survey.

It is my hope that once the results are fully analyzed, you'll be able to look at what your peers are doing, and thus find some helpful solutions and strategies to benefit your organization.

Thanks to all that took the survey, and to those that will take it - a few minutes of your time greatly contributes to our understanding of how organizations desiring social change are using the tools of the Digital Age.

Aug 23, 2009

Teaching with wikis and Wikipedia

Recently I run into an excellent quote:

... the future of communication and an informed citizenry will depend increasingly on the Internet rather than on television or the print media. That doesn't mean we should stop teaching the traditional essay and research paper, but it does mean we need to teach students to work in other genres, such as writing for blogs and wikis, creating podcasts and PowerPoint presentations, and participating in social-networking sites. They need to be comfortable in a variety of online environments, understand Web etiquette, know how to protect their privacy and respect the privacy of others, and learn how to evaluate various sources of information.
-- William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College, "On Stupidity, Part 2: Exactly how should we teach the 'digital natives'?", The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 5, 2008
Hear, hear.

Personally, I see no reason not to assign Wikipedia articles as assignments, and many reasons to do so. Students improve their digital literacy, learn about the site they use so often (and why indeed it can be sometimes unreliable), have something to show for their hard work (a digital artifact, useful to others, instead of a paper that's going to the next trash bin as soon as the course has ended), Wikipedia gets some nice content and the teachers can get help from Wikipedia volunteers (for example, when I am grading students articles, I am also aided by advice from Wikipedia content reviwers). It's a win-win-win situation for everyone :)

Sometime in the near future I want to write a follow-up to my first academic article, Teaching with wikis and Wikipedia. Three years down the road, I am happy to say that most of what I wrote than is still useful - but some updates are needed.

Crucial things I have learned could be summarized as follow: students are lazy, and need motivating. Carrots will only work for a few - you need sticks as well. Hence in the wiki assignment, which depends on students contributing to it regularly, you need graded deadlines to avoid a relatively common phenomena where most students ignore the assignment till the last few weeks/days.

Overall, teaching with Wikipedia has been an enjoyable experience, not only to me but also to other Wikipedia editors - and to the students themselves (at least those who were sufficiently motivated to try to learn something). My last class, despite having just one month and a half, managed to expand three (out of six assigned) articles into Good Articles - and that did exceed my expectations. Now I wonder if the new class, lasting 4 months, will be able to do this to all assigned articles, and if they succeed, I am thinking about replicating the great achievement of the MMM project, and aiming to have the students write Featured Class articles.

On the subject of initiatives related to teaching with Wikipeida, it is worth to check out:
* the Wikipedia Educator's Guide
* the Best practices in assigning Wikipedia articles as coursework to students
and of course
* the Wikipedia:School and university projects

Aug 12, 2009

A gift for my friends in social movements

With the G20 coming to Pittsburgh, a lot of my friends and colleagues involved in social movements are having the time of their lives :)

I thought they deserve a break - hence here's an anti-Iraq war song by Big Cyc, a popular Polish anti-establishment rock band, Mówi Bagdad (Baghdad Speaking). (For better or worse, Poland had one of the largest and longest staying contingent of troops in Iraq)

Please note that youtube is likely to remove this video as a copyvio - I am confident that a search for the song title will yield a reupload somewhere (I wonder what Big Cyc members think about that... I send them an email some time ago asking for some freely licensed materials for their article on Wikipedia but they never replied :( ).

I found Engrish (Pogrish...?) words for the song at some blog. Here's a version that's at least free from major grammatical errors:

Big Cyc - Baghdad Speaking

Janek is going to Baghdad — wants to fight
Young wife will in Poland — proudly lives
Muslims want to — wipe out the infidels
Blood and sweat pour on dry sand

Polish Army pays poorly — everyone knows
Smuggling can pad it up — it’s ok
Again a bomb in Tikrit — shadow of death
Suicide terrorist with dynamite — began the day

Salamu, salamu, salamu alaykum
As-salamu, salamu, salamu,

You can hear silent bullets pass over helmets
Screams of torn people — children’s squeal
Polish soldier has character — tough guy
He doesn't know what he fought for all year long

Janek returns to Warsaw — human wreck
Without money, wife and fame — something wrong
Mr. Minister loudly praises — all is fine
Although they didn’t read Koran — they want to fight


Jul 31, 2009

Organizational intertia

At a recent large academic conference, my paper, for some reason, was given a wrong name. When I asked for it to be correct, I was told that the print program was out, so they could only offer a correction in the form of a leaflet inserted into the program - reasonable. But when I asked them to correct the entry in an online schedule listing, I was told that "since the online program is intended to resemble the final program we cannot make the change there either".


One would think that the very purpose of an online program is to be a better version of the printed one, particularly, one that can be easily changed to reflect changes to schedule... but as we can see from the above, some people still cannot adjust to the realities of the cyberspace (which is ironic because my paper is on an Internet-related subject :D).

Oh well. Being a lowly grad student I know better than to try to reform a major (academic) institution myself. Been there, tried, failed :)

Jul 28, 2009

Youth today... and the future

So I had my final lecture today (teaching university undergrads about "sociology of the family") in the summer class I was teaching, and as usual in my classes, the final lecture looks at the future. We watched a video of Kurzweil, and had a discussion about things like genetic engineering, life expectancy, aging society, the Internet and so on. At one point, however, I was shocked: vast majority of the students seemed very opposed to the idea of immortality (which is increasingly becoming a serious possibility according to some scientists).

Interestingly, theirs were not the arguments I was used to hearing in the past ("it's not natural/it's against the religion/etc."). No, this bunch was rather... very, very pessimistic. They talked about boredom ("why would you want to leave forever? you'll just keep seeing more human misery"), about how the future will be scary (citing sci-fi antiutopias - Huxley, Wells, etc.), about how we have to deal with overpopulation and scarce resources and how immortality is unsustainable, and they even considered (and roughly supported) the idea that the government should make it illegal for people to achieve immortality (!).

I haven't held enough discussions on this subject to know if this group represents an outlier, or is there some current of pessimism about the future that is surfacing about the modern youth?

Being a singularitarian optimist myself I found their pessimism unsettling. Not to want to see the wonders of the future, not to want to live one life's fully... that's what *I* find scary.

Jul 27, 2009

Comparing Wikipedia to Second Life (popularity contest)

I recently found that a Wikipedia-related presentation of mine in a sociological conference (ASA in SF - let me know if anybody else is going there) got shifted to a Second Life track (it was supposed to be about online communities in general, but mysterious are the ways of conference and panel organizers).

So I thought I should at least pay a token attention to SL, and I thought about a brief numerical comparison. It is possible to consider the number of total registered accounts (en-Wiki 2009: ~10 mil, other Wikimedia Foundation projects 2009: ~10 mil, Second Life 2008: ~15 mil) but I run into a problem trying to get a wiki-equivalent of "average/highest number of active editors" (SL in early 2008: ~40,000 - but that's just for people logged in, doesn't say anything about their activity - one can leave a SL client running in the background... just like one can be logged in to Wikipedia for weeks).
What about Wiki? After some thought and discussion and a useful tool that was designed I begun compiling some stats based on a number of unique editors listed at RC page. There is still not enough data to see a clear trend, but numbers seem roughly consistent at about 800 registered users / 400 ips editing en-Wikipedia per hour and 90/30 per 5 minute periods.

As for Alexa traffic rank, SL is at megere ~4000, compared to our Top 10, but that of course simply reflects the fact that Wikipedia is useful for non-logged in users as well.

I wonder if we can indeed answer whether Wikipedia or SL is more popular? Wikipedia is more popular in general, but for logged in (registered) users, which one would be?

Jul 22, 2009

Preeliminary survey results of ICT use by social movements in Pittsburgh

I am a strong believer that science is for the people, not to be locked in ivory towers. Hence, over the coming months I will be publishing a series of blogs documenting research progress in my PhD dissertation, which, roughly, aims to survey and analyze how social movements are using new information and communication tools (think new media - blogs, twitter, wikis, etc.). This analysis should also show the wider public why such research is actually useful :)

To this date, while individual use of some of those tools in organizations was studied, nobody has tried to do a comprehensive analysis of how Internet-era ICT are affecting the social movements. This seems to be to be a major omission on the part of social movement researchers, and I believe that deeper understanding of this issue will be of much use both to the scholars, and to the movement activists themselves.

The first stage of my research involves surveying movements local to my region, which is Pittsburgh. Later stages should provide data on national and international levels.

The Pittsburgh survey takes advantage of the existence of a local social movement coordination organization, the Thomas Merton Center. A downside to this is that TMC has a left wing bias, and thus this survey is likely missing some right wing movements. This should not be an issue with the latter surveys, which will be based on more neutral sampling schemes. TMC list of "justice groups" has approximately 200 entries (193 to be exact), out of which, 125 seem to have or had online presence (i.e. I was able to find their contact info in form of an email (112) or web-based contact form (13)). I should note here that the TMC list has online contact info only for ~15% of the movements, the other 50% I googled myself.

This yields the first interesting statistic: in Pittsburgh region, we can say ~65% of movements have online presence. In other words, a decade into the 21st century, ~35% of local movements have never entered the Internet - an interesting comment on a digital divide, and a contradiction to an existing statistic by Surman (2001) who estimated, nearly a decade ago, that in the developed world, ~90% of voluntary organizations have internet presence. I am already wondering what will be the findings of my larger scale surveys.

Out of 125 online contact addresses, 2 have opted out before from being ever contact for future surveys (according to surveymonkey - the tool I use - database), and 21 have bounced, which indicates to me that that movement is no longer active. Thus the real sample size is 102. Out of those, I have gotten, two weeks and two mailings into the survey, 11 replies (10.7% response rate).

Here I want to heartily thank all the people who have taken time to complete the survey so far, and I should note that the survey is still open (and will be for several weeks), so if you would like to improve our understanding of the ICTs in movements in Pittsburgh, please consider taking the survey :) (please use a personalized email invitation link instead of this one if I have got a survey invitation from me before)

Now, onto the preliminary results. 11 is a relatively low respononse rate, and this does impact the validity of the results somewhat (just a few more responses would do wonders here). If and when I get more responses, I will post an updated analysis. Still, with 11 responses there is enough data to see some interesting patterns. I am bolding those that I found most surprising/interesting:

* all surveyed movements concentrate on local or regional issues
* 80% of surveyed movements are 20 or more years old, all are 5 or more years old
* more responses are need to reliably judge areas of interest, currently, environment, health and social services are the leading areas, but I think this may change if and when more movements reply to my survey
* most movement who replied have few hundreds members
* on average, organizations which replied have ~16 computes connected to the Internet
** Those two may indicate that primarily representatives of larger movements have responded to my survey so far... although it's hard to be sure, as there is no data on size of local movements (maybe most or nearly all movements are that large? Yet somehow I have my doubts here)
* all movements indicate that they have non-members (supporters) who participate in their organization activities, about half have non-members who recruit others for the organization
* member's age distribution seems to be concentrated in the 31-50 range
* majority of respondents think that Internet is very important to the organization (~60% declared it is very important, ~30% as important, only ~10% (=1...) as very unimportant

The second part of the survey, due to its matrix build, needs more replies to be valid; still, here are current highlights:
* face to face communication seems to be the single most important when it comes to management, recruitment, and fund raising, but ICTs become more important when it comes to interacting with other organizations. Usage of traditional mail, websites and emails is popular as well, but there a minority (10-20% = 1-2) of respondents indicate that their movements use new innovative technologies (blogs, internet foras, social tagging, social networking, Twitter, etc.).
* about half of the respondents agree that younger members are much more likely to use the Internet; only 15% disagree
* Internet seems to be used equally by all members, no matter what their rank in the organization
* Usage of tools is dependent on their recentness, more or less as we would expect, although interestingly, texting is used by three organizations - but only in since about a year
* There is strong correlation between ICTs - whether pre-Internet or post-Internet - and a feeling that they give both the individual and the organization more of a say. I would like to say that the the new ICTs are slightly more correlated with that then the old ones, but validity is really an issue here (more replies are needed for me to be able to discuss that)
* there seems to be a general interest in the ICTs, and several respondents indicated that their organization may use the newer, more innovative ones in the future
* at least two of the surveyed organizations are familiar with and are using wikis

That's it for the preeliminary analysis. Once again, I'd like to thank all who have taken (and will take...) their time to fill the survey. If you have not done so, I hope that the analysis above does show how valuable even one answer can be.

I will make a new update when the survey closes with more than 20 respondents, or as soon as that number is reached (and I will make further updates for each 10 more respondents). In theory, past studies suggest I should eventually get about 30 responses, since online survey response rate is about 30%. I will let you know if this holds true in my case :)

PS. The full dataset, minus any potentially confidential information (like emails and such) will be make available online once the survey is completed. Science is for the people...

Jul 20, 2009


Long overdue, but it's time to bring this blog up to modern standards. Replacing 2004 template with 2009...

Jul 16, 2009

Where Wikipedia doesn't work

I have to wonder why Wikipedia community has so much trouble researching itself. Sure, we love to talk about ourselves - we have blogs, newspapers (Signpost), podcasts... but when it comes to serious research, the initatives fail one after another.

Wikidemia, Wikipediology, Wikimedia Research Network - all dead. Even the Wikipedia in academic studies is doing poorly if I am not there to update it - you'd think that increasingly more numerous scholars studying Wikipedia would at the very least bother to advertise their work - apparently not :(

It took us years to get a side wide survey in 2008 - and even it had to be done by outside scholars, with all the transparency and communication problems that implies (there were some rumors about making data set publicly available, but if there has been any confirmation, I am unable to find it). The community survey project, the General User Survey, was never consulted, and there are no signs that we will have a 2009 (or 2010) survey.

There are signs of hope. The usability project looks promising. The Foundation has recently hired a Research Analyst. Yet...

My general impression of this is CHAOS. Things are being done on many foras. There is the usability project, there is the Wiki-research-l listerv, there is Wikidemia, there is the Wikimedia Research Network, things are annouced in Foundation blog or via press releases, there are initatives of individual non-English chapters (for example, non-English surveys of users...).

Some time ago I tried categorizing research pages on Wikipedia and on meta, but it's a loosing fight, particularly since there is no central place to announce them (research is being done and discussed everywhere possible, from Wikipedia subuserpages to people's own blogs). There is little to communication between existing foras, which have different members are differ in openness and focus, old foras are being abandoned due to little activity, new ones are founded by people who don't know about the old ones, research efforts are likely duplicated in various places, and the cycle goes on... it's a chaos, and pretty messy one at that :(

I hope that the new Research Analyst (whoever s/he is) will start by bringing an order to this, and creating some central forum for all of those initiatives, preferably based on a wiki somewhere.

PS. If you know of Wikipedia research initiatives / foras I missed, do let me know. I wonder how big is the iceberg that I a tip of I am ranting about :)

Jul 5, 2009

Wikipedia: increasingly more reliable

Wikipedia:WikiProject Academic Journals has compiled some interesting statistics related to citation of academic journals in Wikipedia. Wikipedia may still have much unreliable info, but it has made lots of progress in the past few years, as current tens of thousands of reliable citations prove.

And of course, instead of resting on laurels, Wikipedia is now taking this opportunity to increase its coverage of the very subject of academic journals...

Jun 3, 2009

On the word "wiki" - and its real application

The just published issue of First Monday has an interesting paper, which employs the word "wiki" but in fact goes beyond what is usually meant by it, applying it to the studies of identities. I find the paper interesting, but the usage of the word wiki in this context, even more so. Behold the evolving language - or at least, academia's love for coining neologisms :)

Read the paper here: Wikidentities: Young people collaborating on virtual identities in social network sites by Kerry Mallan, Natasha Giardina

Another thought: the paper misspells the "Condorcet's jury theorem" writing instead about the "Concordet Jury Theorem" (Condorcet comes from theorem's inventor, Marquis de Condorcet). If First Monday articles were a wiki, this could be easily corrected. As it is... the paper, pretty modern as far as academia goes, does not even allow easy commenting on its contents. I wonder when this will change?

Jun 1, 2009

Flickr vs. Wikimedia Commons: why Flickr is doomed

I was always puzzled why people prefer to use Flickr to Wikimedia Commons. Flickr, after all, has litte to offer compared to Commons: Flickr allows you to upload images, set copyright, tag them, comment on them, and is not fully free - Wikipedia allows you the same, plus is completly free, and comes with a community that will actually IMPROVE your images - by adding missing categories, correcting wrong ones, improving/translating description, etc. As far as I can tell, the only feature that flickr offers that seems useful and is not implemented on Commons, is mapping part of the image and commenting on it. And of course, for those strange people who don't like others using their work, flickr allows the use of non-free licenses...


Flickr popularity on Alexa: 33 most popular site online

Wikimedia Commons popularity: 186 most popular site online

What gives? I think that the flickr is more popular because it looks more "cool", and with the snowball effect, it reaches more people. It's also slightly more user friendly, and better integrated with popular networking sites like Facebook. Wikimedia Commons is not that popular outside the Wikipedia crowd. Yet with Commons "wisdom of the crowd" approach, its steadily improving quality of images, and drive to move useful and freely licensed images from Flickr to Commons, while Flickr keeps accumulating more and more crap, I'd predict that in few years, time, Flickr will be relegated to a repository of porn, non-encyclopedic images and copyright violations.

May 31, 2009

May 15, 2009

Help pretest my survey

A crucial part of my PhD thesis is a survey for movement activists about their usage of communication tools. A crucial part of that is that the survey must be as clear and as short as possible. Here's where I need help: I need a few kind souls to read through the survey (link), and to note any parts that are confusing, contain errors (I am not a native English speaker...), and let me know how long did it take you to complete the survey (I hope that it is doable in ~20 minutes).

You can reach me by commenting here, at my Wikipedia talk page, at Facebook, or at piokon at post dot pl. Thanks,

Apr 28, 2009

Google Library and Commons

I've just discovered that Google now allows you to save public domain books into your library. What good are public domain books for Commons, you may ask? Well, in addition to being interesting historical documents, public domain books, by default, are full of public domain images. In other words: Google Books project does not only collect text, but alongside, quietly, it is collecting a vast amount of old illustrations, photos, maps and such. Examples:

[Please note, those images may not be available in full view to users outside of the United States - reason] (PS. And indeed now that I am in Poland I am seeing junk...)

I've saved a few dozens old Polish books into my library, most of them have at least several old illustrations, photos, or maps. I have no idea when I'll have time to move them to Commons, but I wonder if we should create a dedicated project that would catalogue useful books (those that have media) and report on the progress of their assimilation?

It appears Google have scanned lot of duplicates of the same book; they don't seem to have any mechanism on reporting duplicates, and their reports on damaged pages seem somewhat buggy, too. Still, for a free service, it's a great tool!

Some useful tips for working with images from Google Print:
* you can switch to html mode while browsing a public domain book (small link somewhere to the right and middle of a page) and save the resulting image as a jpeg

PS. Surfing the web, I discovered this excellent blog ("Inside Google Book Search") devoted to Google Book Search; note the use of images from Google Book public domain books.

Apr 20, 2009

Some interesting studies on Wikipedia

Wikipedia's coverage and conflicts quantified: this important study tells us which topics are best covered in Wikipedia, and also, which topics generate most conflict.

What's really interesting is the that "philosophy" and "religion" have generated 28% of the conflicts each. This is despite the fact that they were only 1% and 2%.

Preliminary results from the UNU merit survey: Preliminary results from the General User Survey of 2008 are available.

What I found quite interesting, in addition to the (expected but still not fully understood) the great disproportion in terms of gender among contributors, was the low rate of responders from Poland (around ~15 place, and only tenth as much as those from Germany) when compared to the fact that Polish Wikipedia is the 4th largest. The researchers are somewhat surprised at the rates of response from various countries; they have for example excluded the responses from Russian Wikipedia, which were the second most numerous group (Russian Wikipeda is the 10th most largest).

Jan 19, 2009

Copyright issues with pictures and mods of games: explanation and advice for game designers and fans

This is a repost of a forum post I created for BoardGameGeeks.

Many of us take pictures of games we love, and post them here and on other sites. Others make game aids and other mods, and then share them (or brag about them) on the web. Most, if not all, of game designers not only approve of that, but welcome this, as such viral marketing by fans is a major help to them. But... in fact, people who post such pictures almost always break the law. While it is unlikely the game designers would ever sue a fan, one can wonder if all heirs who inherits the rights or the lawyers of a big company that acquires them will be always so considerate... but there is a simple solution. Below, I'll describe the legal basis of why taking the pictures (or making mods or game aids) is illegal, and how it can be easily and legally rectified, with but a small declaration on the part of the game designer(s) that don't want their fans to be breaking the law and have legal troubles in the future.

Still, for those who will say: "but there are millions of pictures, mods and gaming aids, on BGG and elsewhere, and nobody is being sued", here is some food for thought:
* copyright-conscious sites (Wikipedia, YouTube, and increasingly others) constantly delete a lot of such pictures (videos, etc.), and it pains me to see so much good, fan made effort wasted
* I don't know about you but I don't want to be an exception and find myself sued "for publicity" when a big, evil corporation acquires the laws for a game I took pictures of and their lawyers decide that they can make a short term profit out of my savings
* and I don't want the above to happen to sites like BGG, run by well meaning fans but with little knowledge of the legal issues behind copyright and how it can suddenly rise its ugly head and bite them when they are least suspecting it
* finally, I don't like the fact that most of us, myself included, are copyright criminals, and I'd like to do something to change it. Educating people about the evils of modern copyright and easy solutions makes me feel better :)

Bottom line: if you are a game producer, and you want your products well and legally illustrated and promoted by fans, use a free license. Among other things, they are free to use, too, and in practice, it requires nothing more then a once-in-a-lifetime dedication of a few minutes of your time to put up a small declaration on your website (and on your future products, an additional sentence in a manual or on the box). If you are a gaming fan who takes pictures or creates gaming mods, ask the producer to use a free license, and release all your works under a free license yourself.

Why should we care?
Well, for several reasons. If you like BGG:
* knowing possible legal problems facing BGG and what can be EASILY done to solve them could be useful at some point
If you are a gaming fan who likes to take pictures, and posts them online (or makes gaming aids, gaming mods and such - yes, this applies to you people as well!):
* knowing what the law says, when you break it and what you can do not to break it is usually quite valuable
If you are a game designer:
* knowing what the law says and what can you do (quickly, easily and for free) to have your fans not break it sounds like a good idea
* this will also make it easier for the fans to do their viral marketing stuff :)
* further, Wikipedia is the most popular website on the web; if you google for a popular game, its entry will usually come up next to BGG entry. Further, with a little effort (often on the part of your fans) you can have your game mentioned on Wikipedia's front page, a page with something like tens of millions hits daily. So if you have your game described and well illustrated on Wikipedia, you'll read on :)

Why is posting pictures of games illegal?
Please note that laws differ in different countries, but what I write below holds true for most, and unfortunately, due to international nature of the web, anybody suing for copyright infringement is going to chose the best (most restrictive) law (and since both US and EU laws are among the most restrictive, and used to passing verdicts on such international cases, assume the worst).

While I am not a lawyer, years of hanging out around copyright conscious people on Wikipedia (a project which is very copyright conscious, up to having what some describe as "Nazi volunteer copyright police" :)) have taught me that what it boils down to is that a lot of items are copyright protected to an extent that while you can take a picture of that item, you are not allowed to distribute it. The technical, legal term for a photo (or a mod, or a gaiming aid) is "derivative work".

This applies primarily to photos of modern art. Modern art means for example computer screenshots of movie and computer games, but also pieces of board/card/miniature/other games. You CAN take a photo of such objects - the copyright to it belongs to you and the artist(s) - but you cannot legally publish it without the artists explicit permission.

To give you an example: Copyright of game X is owned by the company X. A fan M makes a mod of the game X, posts pictures online, which are in turn reproduced by fan N and hosted on site A. M, N and A violate copyright of X. N and A violate the copyright of M. In other words, they are criminals... (yes, probably millions of Internet users are criminals, not realizing it... did I mention that the current copyright laws suck?). If the company X is a reasonable one, it will understand that M, N and A are helping it and do nothing. If not, they may be a target of "cease and desist" letters or worse. The company X can however very easily make it legal for fans to mod/take photos/etc. of their games. See the next section for what, exactly.

Please note that the current copyright laws were created due to lobbying of big media corporations (Disney and such) and indeed they don't benefit anybody but them. They certainly don't benefit an average gamer or game designer; instead they hurt us. In the next section I will describe how we can easily deal with them.

Some links of interest for those who want to read a little bit more about specific laws, their interpretation and reasons behind them:
Wikipedia experts on images on the concept of "derivative work"
Wikipedia experts on images on the concept of "freedom of panorama"
Wikipedia experts on images on the concept of "fan art"
An excellent series of essays mostly about why writers (and other artists) should use free licenses, by a renown sci-fi writer, Eric Flint
A free online book that several years ago made people realize how evil and twisted the copyright law can be

Let me quote from that book here:
"There has never been a time in history when more of our 'culture' was as 'owned' as it is now. And yet there has never been a time when the concentration of power to control the uses of culture has been as unquestioningly accepted as it is now."

Easy solution
So US copyright law (and international law) is close to evil. And it harms not only the end users, like us, gamers, but often, the companies themselves: they like the viral marketing of their products... but very few know how to do it legally. Yet it is in fact very easy. It requires nothing more then a small declaration on your website (and in your future products, an additional sentence in a manual or on the box).

Legally means two thing, basically:
* a company should put on their website and on their products a note that it allows some taking and distribution of their photos under free licenses and if they want fans to make mods (such as the giant catan 3d versions and so on), other modifications. Note that free licenses such as Creative Commons are detailed enough that they can still protect the commercial rights of the producer, while allowing fans to legally make (noncommercial) photos, mods and such. In other words, a producer, by taking a few minutes to add a Creative Commons logo and note to their websites and future products, loses nothing, but makes it legal for fans of their products to help with viral marketing :) In other words, free licenses like CC give the artist/copyright holder a legal way to say "you can republish my works under certain conditions and you don't have to try to contact me to get my permission which is required under traditional copyright" or in other words "go and legally spread your love for my products").
* anybody taking a photo and uploading it online should clarify that the photo is under a free license, for the same reasons as above (or to spell it out: if you don't use a free license on your photo, anybody reproducing it is violating your copyright and you can sue them...).

If a free license is not used, a fan who does not want to break law has to contact the copyright holder (game designer), and ask him for a permission to do what they want (make a mod, or post a photo of the game). The copyright holder has to reply. Legal issues ensue when the fan and copyright holder are under various jurisdictions... (for the record, Creative Commons is now mostly international and universal).

If it seems like a hassle, blame to lawmakers, and understand that lack of the above will preclude, for example, illustrating the game article on various law-conscious sites. If you are still annoyed, there are organizations involved in trying to change the existing laws, see links leading from the above Wikipedia article on "free content" for more details (the free culture movement is my personal favorite).

To end, here's a short minute guide on how to freely license your work:
* if you are a game designer, or similar: go to Creative Commons website, spend half a minute with their license generator, take the generated html code, put it on your website, add some custom note if you want to your fans, include in your future releases, and rest assured that your fans can now legally spread photos and such of your games
* if you are a photo taker, make sure that when you upload your photo, you add a note on the CC licenses. Many sites (flickr, Wikimedia Commons) ask you to chose a license. Don't be lazy and chose a free license, not the evil default of "all rights reserved". If the site you upload your photos to doesn't have a free license option, bug them until they add it.

PS. But what about fair use?
Fair use in any way is a legal nightmare, and there is a consensus among the interested legal experts that nine times out of ten, a case revolving around fair use will end up with the fair use being invalidated and the person claiming they had the right to use it, paying the damages... for those reasons, fair use is being phased out from Wikipedia, and is currently accepted only on English language Wikipedia (and in a few years, there won't be any fair use images on Wikipedia). This essays of Eric Flint (linked above) discusses the problems of fair use in detail.

PPS. This post was inspired by some replies to my thread in the Settlers of Catan discussion which in turn was inspired by deletion of SoC images from Wikipedia

PPPS (May'09). Commons have liberalized its policies towards fanart: see the new Commons:Fanart policy. This policy a nutshell: Educationally-useful fan art can be accepted on Commons provided it has not been copied from any creative element of the original copyright work such as a movie, TV show, comic book or computer game.

Jan 3, 2009

Confession of a fansubber

Confession of a pirate: an interesting article, certainly related to the "free culture" phenomena. Defeat? Victory? Both? A step in the right direction? Read on:

Dattebayo to Drop Naruto Effective 1/15/2009

Jan 2, 2009

The joy of ignorance

Or why do I love Wikimedia Commons (the Wikipedia-style media repository). It's not only because I can upload my high resolution, sometimes a bit crappy images :) It's not only because the images can be displayed on Wikipedia. It's because they will be near perfectly categorized - time, place, type... and if I don't know how to categorize them - I can just wait and see how somebody will categorize in in the future. Now, I know little about life sciences: animals, plants, etc. But I still take photos of them... and what happens?

I upload a picture that in my vast knowledge I name "Black bird on grass" :) and categorize it in "unidentified birds". A month later, somebody else updates it to "Unidentified Passeriformes". Few months later, we have the bird narrowed down to "Turdus merula".

Watching this happen to all of my images, from mushrooms to strange parts of machinery, is really fun :)

Feeling like testing your visual knowledge? Try the "Category:Unidentified subject". I think I see a camel...

PS. In other news: my Wikipedia adventures were blogged about by Durova.
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