Wikipedia Goes Commercial

The Ger­man pub­lish­er Ber­tels­mann announced that it will pub­lish annu­al­ly a 1,000 page edi­tion of Wikipedia start­ing next Sep­tem­ber. To be called “The One-Vol­ume Wikipedia Ency­clo­pe­dia,” it will sell for 19.95 euros (or rough­ly $32 U.S.) and fea­ture some of the most pop­u­lar arti­cles from the Ger­man ver­sion of Wikipedia. One euro per copy will go back to Wiki­me­dia, which runs Wikipedia. But noth­ing, as Read­writeweb notes, will go to the writ­ers who actu­al­ly cre­ate the ency­clo­pe­dia entries.

Because Wikipedia is pub­lished under a free license, its con­tent can be freely used and com­mer­cial­ized. And that’s pre­cise­ly what Ber­tels­mann plans to do. In Wikipedia, Ber­tels­mann has found a moth­er­lode of free con­tent it. It can then mon­e­tize that con­tent, keep most of the prof­its (a pub­lish­er’s dream), and kick 5% back to Wiki­me­dia, most like­ly as a way to under­cut the crit­ics. It’s all per­haps legal. But does it feel a bit unseem­ly? Just a touch. Or maybe you dis­agree?

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Comments (7)
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  • francois says:

    Well, it is legal and I find your title unfair in the present case.

    “The pur­pose of this License is to make a man­u­al, text­book, or oth­er func­tion­al and use­ful doc­u­ment “free” in the sense of free­dom: to assure every­one the effec­tive free­dom to copy and redis­trib­ute it, with or with­out mod­i­fy­ing it, either com­mer­cial­ly or non­com­mer­cial­ly.”

    Open Source and Free Soft­ware (GPL,…) and Copy­left con­tents does­n’t for­bid com­mer­cial use, in the con­trary it encour­ages it (If it was­n’t the case mag­a­zines for exam­ple could­n’t redis­trib­ute Free Soft­ware). The eco­nom­i­cal mod­els around Free Software/ Copy­left con­tents are not based on the con­tent them­selves (which are always Free) but on even­tu­al ser­vices for them (IBM, HP…). So Ber­tels­mann won’t real­ly sell con­tent as such, it will just sell a *ser­vice* (a book, writ­ten on paper, more com­fort­able than a com­put­er screen and can be used with­out a com­put­er every­where) and peo­ple can freely decide to buy this *ser­vice* or not if they find any need for it.

    “”” It can then mon­e­tize that con­tent, keep most of the prof­its (a publisher’s dream) “””

    Copy­left con­tent is not a publisher’s dream, there’s a very impor­tant dif­fer­ence, it’s called com­pe­ti­tion.

    In the real pub­lish­er world the pub­lish­er (gen­er­al­ly) have the mono­pole of the price of the book for 90 years. There is no pos­si­ble com­pe­ti­tion because the pub­lish­er gen­er­al­ly owns the pub­lish­ing rights.
    That’s why non-pub­lic domain books are so expan­sive, there’s no com­pe­ti­tion pos­si­ble on price: you take it or you leave it.

    In the case of the Wikipedia (a copy­left licence), *any* pub­lish­er or asso­ci­a­tion or indi­vid­ual or church or (put your name here) can pub­lish a bet­ter price/service if he wants. So mak­ing a huge/unfair prof­it is just impos­si­ble because com­pe­ti­tion lev­els the play­ground.

    So I cer­tain­ly think we can reproach a lot of things to the Wiki­me­dia foun­da­tion (and the Wikipedia itself) but not to live by its stan­dard and copy­left license which is there since the begin­ning.

    So for my part I’m pleased Ber­tels­mann is pub­lish­ing this book and I hope there will be many oth­er publishers/associations going for it to low­er the price and give access to real books based on Wikipedia to a max­i­mum of peo­ple.


    PS: thanks for Open­Cul­ture (great site that I real­ly appre­ci­ate)

  • AJ Hyman says:

    Thank you for shar­ing this inter­est­ing news item (and thank you for all the oth­er entries — I am a hap­py sub­scriber to Open Cul­ture).

    Yes, it does seem a bit “unseem­ly,” but there are a num­ber of assump­tions in your edi­to­r­i­al that may need deep­er exam­in­ing.

    For exam­ple, your com­ment on Ber­tels­mann keep­ing most of the prof­it? How much would that actu­al­ly be, after all oth­er non-con­tent costs are sub­tract­ed (print­ing, for exam­ple)? Five per­cent to the col­lec­tive might not be out of wack when com­pared to oth­er costs.

    Anoth­er assump­tion is that peo­ple will actu­al­ly buy the paper copy. I think it will be an excel­lent social exper­i­ment to see if peo­ple do, and ulti­mate­ly, why they would buy a paper copy.

    I hope you will be able to track this sto­ry as it pro­gress­es.

    Thanks again,

    AJ Hyman, Toron­to

  • Elizabeth GM says:

    I agree — unseem­ly with sev­er­al under­lines. I’m also try­ing to imag­ine who would want such a thing as a print­ed, abridged Wikipedia. The whole appeal of Wikipedia is its real-time updat­ing by a com­mu­ni­ty of learn­ers. If you’re going to freeze an ency­clo­pe­dia in amber, then it real­ly should have a whole edi­to­r­i­al board, etc.

  • Ted Lemon says:

    Some­times it’s nice to be able to pull a book off the shelf. Also, elec­tron­ic infor­ma­tion can be eas­i­ly lost; print­ed mate­r­i­al is more durable. The whole point of the cre­ative com­mons is to enable as wide a vari­ety of use­ful appli­ca­tions to a piece of media as pos­si­ble, isn’t it?

    This is use­ful. It’s allowed by the license. If you did­n’t want your writ­ing to be freely redis­trib­uted, why did you put it some­where where those were the terms? If you think they’re mak­ing too much prof­it, fig­ure out how to under­cut them. If you real­ly think there’s some­thing unseem­ly about what Ber­tels­mann is doing, you don’t get what the cre­ative com­mons is about.

  • Sergio says:

    I also think your fram­ing of this is a bit unfair. Wikipedia makes clear that it is not to be thought of as a place for orig­i­nal research, but rather a col­lec­tive effort on the parts of many vol­un­teers to bring infor­ma­tion from oth­er sources togeth­er in one place for free use. From my lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence with observ­ing the Wikipedia com­mu­ni­ty, I would expect that they would be hap­py at this news as it fur­thers the aims of the Wikipedia project and makes the foun­da­tion some mon­ey, as for now they rely almost entire­ly (i believe) on dona­tions.

  • Muriel says:

    It’s a lit­tle strange to think about some­one will­ing­ly mak­ing *any* mon­ey off the work on Wikipedia, but that’s the sit­u­a­tion Wiki put out there. So, there isn’t much to real­ly “argue” about.

    I, for one, would­n’t want to pub­lish free work and gain a dime. It seems past my morals, even if the infor­ma­tion is free to do with what you please. I think the best sce­nario would be a pub­lished Wikipedia where all prof­its went to char­i­ties and Wikipedia itself.

    Utopi­an, right?

  • Pethr says:

    I see where the moral­ly shad­ow area is but as far as I’m con­cerned we’re writ­ing ency­clo­pe­dia there, to make knowl­edge acces­si­ble and our world account­able. If there are peo­ple who will pre­fer book over going online to look things up on de.wikipedia for free then it fur­thers the reach of our cause. Linked arti­cled sug­gests hat Wikipedia is rip­ping of it’s mem­bers. How exact­ly are they doing it? Foun­da­tion can’t pos­si­bly stop the pub­li­ca­tion and they won’t be build­ing pri­vate estates from the share they get back – it will be used to run Wikipedia which is becom­ing increas­ing­ly expen­sive busi­ness.

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