Encyclopedia Britannica Content in Wikipedia?

Cyberlaw Software / Open Source Web 2.0

The other day I was looking up an article on Wikipedia – The
Battle of Agincourt. Every time I visit Wikipedia,
I come away impressed at the breadth and depth of the articles. This time was no different. The article on Agincourt was well organized, deep, and lightly peppered with images and tables.

For some reason I got a hankering to see what this now
impressive article looked like in its first draft. Did it start out as just a place holder? Maybe a person saying, “Hey, somebody ought
to cover the Battle of Agincourt, any takers?”

The beauty of a wiki is, of course, that it allows me to do just
that. With a few clicks of my mouse I
had opened up and was looking at the very first draft of the Battle of Agincourt.

What I found surprised me.

Instead of a placeholder, or some third rate attempt at an
article, I found a complete and carefully crafted entry. It was well written, it was detailed, and it was
complete. The university instructor in
me whispered, “foul”.

So I did what I do with my students when one paragraph of an
essay struggles with the concept of a period, and the next sentence contains a
deft usage of the semi colon. I clipped
a phrase from the article and did a Googled search.

And there it was. The
Wikipedia article was a complete copy/paste job from the 1911 Encyclopedia
Britannica.

Is this legal? Is it
ethical?

While I’m no lawyer, I do have a bit of experience with
copyright, the Teach Act, and Fair Use. Since
the 1911 encyclopedia is no longer restricted by copyright, the copy/paste job
certainly isn’t illegal. However, in my
opinion it is a bit on the unethical side. I can find nothing in the first article that
stated the source of the text. It is
simple courtesy to both the reader and original source to be clear where
content is coming from.

But it does raise a host of fascinating questions. As users have added to, and taken away from,
the article, when does it become more of the community’s work and less
Britannica’s? Would there be a point
where the reference to Britannica could be taken off? If so, at which point? And perhaps the most intriguing question of
all (at least to me) – which article is better? The original Britannica article, or the community altered one?

My own opinion is that the current version in Wikipedia is leaps and bounds beyond what was originally in the 1911 version of
Encyclopedia Britannica (despite the recent statement from a former EB man who
compared Wikipedia to a public restroom).

The other question raised is how many other Wikipedia articles
have ‘borrowed from’ the 1911 work? Or
from other sources? Obviously a Wikipedia
article about Digg isn’t going to take up much space in a 1911 encyclopedia,
but who knows what percentage of material on Wikipedia has been grafted in from
other sources. In a quick and dirty
unscientific study, I pulled five random articles from the 1911 encyclopedia,
and a quick Google search showed exact matches for three of them in Wikipedia.

For truth-in-advertising purposes, I should mention I’m a
huge fan of Wikipedia. The fact that the Agincourt article started out
a copy paste job does not bother me in the least, other
than a mild annoyance that there was no citation. I’m a firm believe in
the notion that
information should be free and open to anybody who wishes to better
their lives
from it. When all is said and done, the
fact that a community of volunteers can take existing content, remix
it, make
it better, and then post it online for anybody to access, has to be
seen as a
good and positive step.

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