Wikipedia in theory

For the last few days I’ve been stewing about one of the article in the recent Wikipedia-edition of the epistemology journal Episteme. (See the Wikipedia Signpost for summaries of the articles.) I don’t find any of them particularly enlightening, but one just rubs me wrong: K. Brad Wray’s “The Epistemic Cultures of Science and Wikipedia: A Comparison“, which argues that where science has norms that allow reliable knowledge to be produced, Wikipedia has very different norms that mean Wikipedia can’t produce reliable knowledge.

I guess it’s really just another proof of the zeroeth law of Wikipedia: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”

Part of my problem might be that last year I blogged a comparison between Wikipedia’s epistemological methods and those of the scientific community, but came to the opposite conclusion, that in broad strokes they are actually very similar. But more than that, I think Wray’s analysis badly misrepresents both the way science works and the way Wikipedia works.

A central piece of Wray’s argument is scientists depend on their reputations as producers of reliable knowledge for their livelihoods and careers, and so their self-interest aligns with the broader institutional interests of science. This is in contrast to Wikipedia, where mistakes have little or no consequences for their authors and where a “puckish culture”, prone to jokes and vandalism, prevails. Wray writes that “In science there is no room for jokes” such as the Seigenthaler incident.

The idea that scientists are above putting jokes and pranks into their published work is belied by historical and social studies of science and by many scientific memoirs as well. James D. Watson’s Genes, Girls, and Gamow is the first thing that comes to mind, but there are many examples I could use to make that point. And science worked much the same way, epistemologically, long before it was a paid profession and scientists’ livelihoods depended on their scientific reputations. (I don’t want to over-generalize here, but some of the main features of the social epistemology of science go back to the 17th century, at least. See Steve Shapin’s work, which is pretty much all focused, at least tangentially, on exploring the roots and development the social epistemology of science.)

Likewise, the idea that Wikipedia’s norms and community practices can’t be effective without more serious consequences for mistakes seems to me a wrong-headed way of looking at things. On Wikipedia, as in science, there are people who violoate community norms, and certainly personal consequences for such violations are less on Wikipedia than for working scientists. But for the most part, propagating and enforcing community norms is a social process that works even in the absence of dire consequences. And of course, just as in science, those who consistently violate Wikipedia’s norms are excluded from the community, and their shoddy work expunged.

For a more perceptive academic exploration of why Wikipedia does work, see Ryan McGrady’s “Gaming against the greater good” in the new edition of First Monday.

The Obama poster goes to court

Comparison of obama photos to Fairey poster
Comparison of obama photos to Fairey poster

Maybe I’m weird, but I’m really excited about the prospect of high profile copyright/fair use litigation. As the New York Times reports, the Associated Press sued street artist Shepard Fairey over the Obama “Hope” poster, which was based on a shot by former A.P. freelance photographer Mannie Garcia.

A few weeks ago, I started the Wikipedia article on the poster. It ended up on the Main Page for “Did you know?” on inauguration day, and while it was there another editor, Dforest, pointed me to something very interesting: this Flickr photo by stevesimula (shown above). When I wrote the article, it was thought (and reported) that the lower shot (a Reuters photo by Jim Young) was the basis for Fairey’s poster. But stevesimula had convincingly demonstrated the true source, which apparently was known only to Fairey (and probably some of his crew), some of the Obama people, and whatever isolated netizens might have noticed. (I investigated some rumors that an art forum had found it months earlier, but couldn’t verify that.)

This was getting interesting, but beyond what was allowed on Wikipedia without violating the ban on Original Research. Long story short, I started a Wikinews article on the photo source, and a tip from Dforest and me (that the photo was from A.P., which we found with led photographer Tom Gralish to find a copy of the original that included metadata, identifying the photographer. If we’d just been a little smarter, we might have beaten Gralish to the punch and broken a story of national import.

Now A.P. has sued Fairey (who didn’t profit directly from Obama poster sales, but no doubt has seen a huge surge in interest in his other for-profit work) for violating its copyright. Fairey, assisted by a Stanford law proffesor among others, is suing back, seeking a declaratory judgment that the poster is fair use. To make it even better, Mannie Garcia claims he actually owns the copyright, because of the terms of his A.P. contract.

I’m a big supporter of fair use, but this is an interesting case of pushing the boundaries. The main reason I’m ambivalent is the way Fairey handled it… he originally appropriated the image with no attempt at crediting Garcia. Fairey has obviously benefitted tremendously (if not directly, in terms of profit) from the image, but has also dramatically increased the value of the original. His work is also essentially a political statement, something fair use is supposed to protect and allow. But the hybrid nature of Fairey’s commercial street art (controversial even within the street art scene) complicates things. Either you’re doing this essentially anti-authoritarian street art that is based on grafitti culture, or you’re running an art business. If it’s the former, go ahead and break the rules you disagree with or don’t care about, but don’t expect to be making the big bucks mass-producing and selling your designs. If it’s the latter, you should at least have the decency to credit other artists whose work you use for your own.

I’m really rooting for Garcia, here. From all the snippets I’ve read, he seems gracious and thoughtful. From the Times:

“I don’t condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet,” Mr. Garcia said. “But in this case I think it’s a very unique situation.”

He added, “If you put all the legal stuff away, I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effect it’s had.”

But I’m also rooting for Fairey, or at least for the entrenchment of liberal fair use rights.

Can you copyright a bonsai?

Besides Wikipedia, my main hobbies are bonsai and photography. Sometimes I combine all three, taking pictures of bonsai and uploading them to Wikimedia Commons. So the question I have is, does styling a bonsai create a copyright? Can I take a photo of someone’s tree and do what I want with it (e.g., license it freely on Commons), or do I need the owner’s permission?

At first blush, the answer would seem to be yes, bonsai is eligible for copyright. It is a form of visual art, often compared to sculpture. A good bonsai is distinctive, demonstrating the creative vision of the artist who made it.

On the other hand, it is a living thing, and a core principle of bonsai is that it is never finished and always subject to change; according the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form.” What is meant by fixed form? A bonsai’s form is never truly fixed (in the same way that one’s face is never fixed but develops over time), but (like a face) a well-styled bonsai may be recognizable in the same general form over the course of decades, or even centuries. That’s more than can be said of many traditional works of art, which for some media may deteriorate beyond recognition in just 10 or 20 years. But bonsai typically evolved to a roughly “final” form over the course of many years. When, during this process, is a copyright created? If photograph a bonsai one year and it’s very different the next, I essentially took a snapshot of something that was not at the time in a fixed form. But if I take a picture one year and the bonsai is basically the same the next, does that mean it was copyrighted? Does keeping a bonsai as it lives and grows generate a continual series of copyrights, such that the centuries-old trees that get handed down from generation to generation can never go out of copyright as long as they are alive?

For my part, I’ve assumed that bonsai are not eligible for copyright. Mainly, I do this because there is no tradition within the bonsai community of claiming copyright for bonsai, only for particularly (fixed) pictures of them. If anyone has a more definitive answer, or informed thoughts on the matter, please let me know.