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Wednesday, September 7, 2005
One year ago today, September 7, 2004, the Wikimedia Commons project was presented to the public. Wikimedia Commons, or simply Commons, is a repository for multimedia files that include images, videos, computer animations, and music as well as spoken texts. They currently count more than 232,000 such files.
All of Commons content is published under a free licence, so the use of its files is permitted outside the project itself. Its main mission is to provide the international Wikipedias with images. Like Wikipedia, the Commons is based on a simple wiki principle that permits every user to contribute and change content. The project is organized into so-called gallery pages, and/or by adding files into categories organized in multiple topics that help facilitate the speedy location of desired files. Often it exists already a direct link from the Wikipedia page to the corresponding page in the Commons.
The Wikimedia Commons proposal was originated by the German Erik Möller, (Eloquence), in March 2004. Eloquence was until recently the Chief Research Officer of the Wikimedia Foundation. Up until the launch of Commons, it was time consuming to use material from one Wikipedia language project in a sister project of a different language. Each file had to be uploaded into each language edition of Wikipedia, and be described and licensed again. The goal was to reduce this redundant effort into one upload, which it can be said that this was successful.
The language in use on the project’s Main Page is English because it is an international project, but many information pages exist in multiple languages. Judging by the experience of other Wikimedia Foundation projects, it is only a question of time before further localization occurs at Commons. This will make it easier for users with fewer skills in foreign languages to also contribute files.
The content in the Commons is growing at a rapid pace. Within the last month alone, the number of images and other files has grown by more than 43,000. This represents a 22,7 % increase in relation to the prior month. While the Wikipedia projects usually compare themselves with the more widely known encyclopedias like Britannica and Brockhaus, a competitor Commons would likely be considered the huge commercial photo archives like Getty Images and Corbis, who possess more than 70 million images each. In relation to them, the Commons is very small at the moment. However, most of the important buildings and landmarks world wide are already featured in its database.
Like other Wikimedia Foundation projects, the Commons face certain challenges and problems. Sometimes people upload offensive images. The community has had to establish clear criteria about which content is acceptable, and which is not. There should not be unfair censorship. Obvious transgressions can be pointed out by anybody, and they are usually deleted rapidly by the administrators.
A sensitive topic is copyrights, and the rights of the owner of the pictured images. International rules have not yet been made compatible. In certain ways, the Wikimedia Foundation opens new territory in the area of intellectual property. Before Commons, it was almost exclusively a domain of professionals to publish images who were well aware of the legal issues. Now it is possible for huge numbers of photo amateurs to publish. Like with offensive content, obvious violations of copyright are deleted the moment they are brought to notice of the administrators. However, it is quite possible there will be an upcoming international debate if the free publication of certain content, e.g. images of national heritage objects, is in the overwhelming public interest. In cases such as this, private interests which might prevent publication are of lesser importance.
The contribution of Wikimedia Commons to a wide array of issues in research, reporting, education, tourism or others, at a global scale, is difficult to fathom at the moment. Most likely though the impact will be gigantic.