Sunday, June 15, 2008

Countering systemic bias

Joshua is right: copyright is a lot more complicated than crayon analogies. So here above is one example. Multilingual readers take note: your assistance could have a far-reaching impact.

You see, that old panorama is a shot of the USS South Carolina in 1910. That makes it pre-1923 public domain according to United States law and makes it usable at the English language Wikipedia. With stitching and restoration it could become a very useful and attractive image.


This isn't a United States harbor. Wikimedia Commons hosting policy is somewhat different from English Wikipedia hosting policy. And half of all Wikimedia Foundation visitor traffic occurs on sites other than the English language Wikipedia. Images that are public domain in the United States aren't necessarily public domain elsewhere. The difference has a large impact at a global project.

To illustrate the difference, the image at right is a featured picture at English Wikipedia but is ineligible for hosting at Wikimedia Commons. The poster was created in 1921, which makes it public domain in the United States and perfectly good for local hosting on the English language edition of Wikipedia. Yet it cannot be hosted on Commons because it has not entered the public domain in France, its country of origin. The artist Geo Dorival lived until 1968 and French copyright remains in effect for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

Australian copyright law is similar in that regard. So the image at left of a nurse, which is currently a featured picture candidate, is available at Commons for use at all projects. The artist David Henry Souter passed away in 1935 and the image entered public domain in 2005.

In order to make a historic image available globally through Wikimedia Commons hosting we have to determine what the local copyright duration is. That changes from country to country, but Commons doesn't yet have copyright summaries for every country. This is a major barrier to countering systemic bias.

So what's the status of that 1910 harbor panorama? Although it might seem so old that it must be public domain, that's really not guaranteed. The image of a nurse dates from World War I and only recently entered public domain in its country of origin. If that harbor happens to be in a country that observes life + 70 years as the standard term of copyright, and if the artist lived until 1947, then this image wouldn't be in the public domain yet. We have to understand these issues before we can upload.

It turns out the 1910 panorama was taken in Havana Harbor. Commons has copyright law summaries available in English for only three Latin American countries: Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. In order to decipher this image's status I had to thread through Cuban copyright law. This one is public domain. I'd like to make a reference summary available for other Wikimedians who want to upload historical Cuban material, but I don't trust my Spanish enough for that important task. It's one thing to determine whether a particular image is public domain, another thing to summarize all relevant Cuban copyright law for the entire English speaking public. If your mastery of Spanish is better than mine, please help.

We need more people to translate copyright information for Wikimedia Commons. Right now Commons summaries are pretty good for North America and Europe, spotty for Asia, and seriously lacking for Africa and Latin America. When it comes to countering systemic bias, this is an issue that stops large numbers of people at the starting gate. So if you're fluent in Spanish, French, or any non-European language, please review the summary list at Commons:Licensing and see if your skills match the need. Online source references are available below.

*Collection of National Copyright Laws, UNESCO
*CERLALC copyright laws of Latin America
*ASEAN Southeast Asian copyright laws


pfctdayelise said...

Your summary of Australian copyright law is not quite complete. Up until 2005 Australia only had a life+50 copyright length. Things that were in the public domain then didn't leap back into copyright because of the Free Trade Agreement. But things still under copyright did get an extra 20 years on their copyright life.

So the nurse image entered the public domain in 1985. But either way, the good thing is it's still PD :)

Lise Broer said...

Thank you for the clarification.

So does that mean some material by artists who lived until the 1950s is public domain? That could be very helpful. )

Ecemaml said...

Wow, apparently, until a Copyright Act was passed in 1977, Spanish 1879 law on Intellectual Property was in force (well, according to this (also in Spanish), Cuba signed a number of international conventions on Intellectual Property, but I don't know whether it affected the provisos in the Spanish law.

The problem is that the only available copy of the Copyright Act in the web states that it was modified in 1994 (that is, what we see is the 1994 update of the 1977 act, so that we don't know which the original provisos in the 1977 act was).

Anyway, it states (art. 43) a life+50 years copyright length (with the proviso that the 50 year time start to count from the January 1st of the year following to the author's death). If the author is unknown or the work has been written down with pseudonimous, it's 50 years from first publication (art. 45). With regard to photographs, it states 25 years from first "use" (it also applies to "applied arts works", art. 47). Unfortunately, IANAL, and I cannot interpret the proviso on art. 49. It states that once the work has entered the public domain, "the user must pay an special contribution that will be used for the development of the Science, the Education and the Culture of the country" ("el usuario deberá abonar una contribución especial que será utilizada para el desarrollo de la ciencia, la educación y la cultura del país"). Fee will be set by the Ministry of Culture. Very strange, indeed.

// ecemaml (administrator at commons and es.wikipedia)