Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and crowdsourced photos

What is Wikimedia Commons?

An amazing plaque at Victoria University Wellington (CC-BY-SA)

Wikimedia Commons is a community-run website where people from around the world upload images, which can then be used freely by others (with certain restrictions depending on licences). As the name suggests, it’s run by the Wikimedia Foundation who run the behind-the-scenes-stuff at Wikipedia, and a whole host of other related websites. The Commons is the main storage location for all the images, videos, and audio recordings etc on Wikipedia.

The Commons only accepts images which have some encyclopedic/educational value and are licenced very permissively. The default licence is CC-BY-SA, which in a few words, means you’re free to share the item as long as you say who created the image, and share your item (either simply the original item or a derivative) under the same conditions.

The conditions make it pretty difficult to upload anything unless you’ve created it yourself and you give the go-ahead, or you track down creative commons licenced media somewhere else. But the somewhat restrictive conditions on what you can upload create this amazing resource for the world: for pretty much anything you can imagine, there’s a free image available free of charge. It’s like a giant stock photo database, except free. I don’t really understand why people are still buying stock photos when there are all these freely available images sitting there. All you have to do is follow the simple creative commons conditions and you’re fine.

Where there isn’t freely licenced media available, that’s where people like you can step in and help fill the gap.

How normal people can help

The creepy School of Practical Philosophy in Aro Valley, Wellington (by me, CC-BY-SA)

While big organisations like museums, libraries and art galleries are increasingly uploading their collections to the Commons, the site is also bolstered by an enormous army of everyday people who have contributed the photos/videos/audio they’ve created.

It’s so easy to help! If you’ve got a halfway decent smartphone you can take a quick snap of something interesting with your smartphone and upload it – there’s even an Android app so you can do it directly from your phone. Or if you don’t fancy uploading it to the Commons, you can put it on Flickr with a CC licence, and then someone might come along and upload it to the Commons later for you. Because the Commons is linked into Wikipedia, your media may even end up illustrating a Wikipedia article one day!

Brooklyn War Memorial, Wellington (by me, CC-BY-SA)

The great thing about creative commons is that by licensing images under a creative commons licence (the default for commons is CC-BY-SA), you’re unlocking a whole lot of hidden potential in everything you create. For most people, they take heaps of digital photos, but don’t look at them or share them all that often, and they simply gather virtual dust. But if you put your media on the internet with a creative commons licence, you never know what cool stuff someone else is going to do with it. Maybe they’ll put your cool photo in a book, or incorporate your video into a music video, or sample your audio to put in a peice of music. And all along the way those people will be pointing back to you, increasing the popularity of your creations. (Of course, if you want to make money out of your creations, there are CC licences for that too, but I’m focussing on permissive licences for this post.)

The other big thing people can help with on the Commons is by helping to categorise the huge volume of images and other stuff which is just floating about. By adding categories to all the media, you can help to enable people to find things they’re looking for and make the whole project work more smoothly.

Case study: How Heritage New Zealand crowdsourcing could work even better

I stumbled across a cool crowdsourcing project the other day which was covered in Heritage magazine. Heritage New Zealand (HNZ) had a problem with their register of historic places: they didn’t have images for a whole lot of them. So they set up a Flickr group where members of the public could contribute photos of heritage listed buildings and places which can be put on the register. It’s been a really successful project, and I think they’ve got photos for about 90% of the items on the register now.

It’s a really cool (ongoing) project they’re running, but I think it could be improved in a pretty easy but important way: the whole project should be based around the use of creative commons photos of historic things. From doing a bit of research, it looks to me like people who contribute photos to the project are only giving HNZ a specific right to use them for the register, but otherwise most of the photos are copyrighted. That means a whole lot of cool and unexpected uses of the images are being shut down from the outset. While it may be the case that there are some professional photographers are contributing their commerical-grade photos to the pool which they wouldn’t want to licence under CC, I think for the most part people just aren’t aware it’s an option.

From HNZ’s perspective, I would have thought that getting the images onto the register is a good first step, so they can let the public view these important historical things online. But going beyond that, creative a huge pool of easily-usable images of historic places, buildings, etc, would be a fantastic further step which could help to improve New Zealanders’ appreciation of the history all around them.

Last edited April 2015

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