Managing wikis: the dangers of copyright

Understanding the law is key to wiki management

An increasing number of businesses are finding a need for wiki management. This role requires an awareness of the various problems that wikis can generate, some of which may not be immediately obvious.

There is a danger of "trashing" or "trolling", meaning malicious posting of obscene or defamatory text or images, or posting of irrelevant material.

Ideally, each sector of a wiki should be checked daily. Gatekeepers must be on the look out for erroneous, irrelevant or inferior material, and they should also be aware of positively undesirable material, which must then be removed.

In the case of obscene and other malicious material, the perpetrator should be banned from further access. Software to identify obscene material exists, though this is usually a simple task to administrate manually if the site is being monitored properly.

Copyright infringement

There is also a subtler danger: infringement of copyrighted material. This is rarely malicious, but could land a wiki administrator in real trouble. Copyright material, unlike the other kinds of undesirable material, is hard to spot.

Most people have only the haziest idea of what copy­right is and how it works. The music industry's aggressive pursuit of copyright infringers has aroused a good deal of opposition to the concept, and some may even relish the idea of striking a blow for freedom.

Yet the penalties for infringing copyright can be severe. The usual consequences include an action for damages with a requirement to account for any sales, an injunction, or even a criminal conviction.

Public-domain material

I have heard it said that "public domain" means something that has already been published. In fact, text or graphic material is usually copyrighted for 70 years from the death of the originator or copyright owner.

For example, a postcard from 1910 will be out of copyright 70 years after the photographer or copyright owner dies. If the photographer was 30 in 1910 and lived until 1960, the image will be in copyright until 2030. This means that even media more than 100 years old may well still be in copyright.

A way of dealing with this is to suspend postings until a gatekeeper has checked provenance by determining the source of material and identifying the copyright owner. This is done by deciding whether the poster is the copyright owner. If not, the poster must have the written consent of the copyright owner.

The danger with this is that many would-be contributors will not know who the copyright owner is, and there is a risk that good contributions will never be posted.

An alternative for text contributions is to suggest that those wishing to contribute something they suspect may be within copyright should paraphrase material, since it is the actual words that constitute the copyright, not the thoughts behind the words.

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