Understanding Jimmy Wales, but not free knowledge

At the end of December, I was invited to an Esperanto convention that took place in my relative vicinity. Some 30-40 people (of 110 participants) came to my two lectures on the history of encyclopedias and Wikipedia. Essentially I presented what I show to German school teachers, with a special focus on free knowledge, free licenses and the benefits of that for everybody. People had smart questions and the tendency to go into detail; many have a website or edit an Esperanto newspaper and want to know how to use Wikimedia Commons, whether they are allowed to use free content commercially etc.

But the two sessions were also very useful for me because I learned once more about what people already know about Wikipedia and what are the usual wrong conceptions. Explaining/understanding free knowledge is very challenging, and it really needs the large approach I provide at a slow pace, with examples and simplifications.

The sessions were part of the ‘International Winter University’ of the convention, organized by astronomy professor Amri Wandel of Tel Aviv. At the end of the second lecture, I examined those listeners who were eager to obtain study points. Most of the content did reach the audience, and it is obviously easy to follow on practical things and pure facts, like that Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales.

An abstract concept such as free knowledge is a different thing: for about half of the examinees had severe difficulties picking the right multiple choice answer. And as a matter of fact, doesn’t the expression ‘free knowledge’ sound like ‘free access for everybody’, ‘sharing knowledge freely in an open way’? I always emphasise – and maybe I should even more – that our ‘free knowledge/content/culture’ is a very specific concept, that the word ‘free’ should be in quotation marks with a clear, short definition.

Joint seminar of UEA and WMNL on free knowledge

Marek Blahus in Rotterdam

‘Libera Scio’ was the title of a seminar organized by Wikimedia Nederland together with the World Esperanto Association (UEA) in Rotterdam. Marek Blahus and I presented the Wikimedia movement, multilingual Wikipedia and above all the secret ingredient of Wikipedia: free knowledge.

The UEA holds an open day twice a year in its headquarters; it is usually on Saturday, and on Sunday some guests from abroad still stay in town. For about a dozen people (age 20 to 70) joint us for a tight schedule with lots of information and exercises. The participants were not only impressed by Wikipedia’s size (and the size of Wikimedia Commons) but also by the many ways you can go wrong when it comes to copyright.

Give, and it will be given to you: tenth anniversary of Wikipedia in Dutch

Ladies and gentlemen, authors and fans of Wikipedia, welcome to Den Bosch, at our birthday party for a ten-year old Wikipedia in Dutch. As president of the supporting association Wikimedia Nederland I have been asked for an introductory speech to set the right mood for the evening.

And how could you better set the mood than by quoting from the Big Book. Indeed, I mean the Bible, as we are in the Roman [Catholic] South [of the Netherlands]. We read from Luke 9:

Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” And they did so, and had them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces. (Luke 9, 11-17)

This is an absurd story, which I retained from my Confirmation. It didn’t make me exactly a religious person. Where is the logic in it? But of course, spoken about multiplication, also nowadays in the internet age, we know a lot of absurd stories.

Think about the fact that so many people download illegally content from the internet – music, Hollywood movies – while those same people would never get in their mind to go to a store and steal a DVD, or a book. Why this difference?

Law experts explain it to us with the difference between material goods and immaterial goods. A book is a material good, you are not supposed to steal it, and so it has been always. But the content of the book is immaterial good, and that is a law concept that exists only for about two hundred years. It’s still not rooted enough in our culture, it seems.

The real explanation comes from economists. They talk about scarcity. Air is not scarce, drinking water, at least in the Netherlands, is not scarce, while nearly everything people manufacture is scarce. If I steal a book from someone, then I have it and he doesn’t, and that’s not fair. But if I borrow the book, and copy the content, and nowadays this is easily done digitally, then I have the content, he has his book – so where is the scarcity? Everyone is happy, or not?

Now this is where copyright comes in. Copyright is a means to make content artificially scarce. For commercial reasons, of course.

I even don’t want to complain about that here, but we from Wikimedia are firmly convinced that there has to be also a different kind of content, open content, free knowledge. And that ought not to be made scarce. As someone in the 19th century already expressed it: knowledge is a special good. If you share it, it doesn’t become less, it becomes more.

Bernardo Strazzi: Jesus feeding a crowd with five loaves of bread and two fishAnd that’s what the man from Nazareth wanted to say. Not that the five thousand people didn’t like the fishburgers and returned them. He meant: Give, and it will be given to you.

We from Wikimedia give every month to nearly 400 million people. 400 million visitors to our websites in the whole world.

That is, of course, a sad thing.

Because they should be much more. There are billions of people on the world. We don’t want only the children in Amsterdam or Den Bosch or the Achterhoek to have a free encyclopedia in their own language. We want the children in Nairobi and Jakarta and Sao Paolo have theirs, too.

Even today, on our day of honour, we have been busy with improving Wikipedia, by taking photographs from the beautiful old town of Den Bosch. Thanks to everybody who made Wikipedia in Dutch possible.

I believe that I have created a little bit of the right mood. Ladies and gentlemen, authors and fans of Wikipedia, my name is Ziko van Dijk, we are Wikimedia, and this is your party. Enjoy it.