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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