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Free as a legal term or as a moral promise

After I wrote A mission: providing free knowledge, Delphine commented with a detailed blog, in which she argues that the reference to « free as in free beer » is in reality one of the most important terms in the mission statement, as it garantees the content will stay accessible to everyone.

Because without breaching the free as in speech statement, the Foundation could decide that all access to the sites are only possible to people who have paid, say 100 dollars. The only thing the Foundation would have to do then is provide a machine-readable Transparent copy to anyone who pays the 100 dollars.

I’ll have to agree with that.

This nevertheless does not solve my issue which is that the Foundation bylaws only garantees a « free as in free beer » access for the website itself. The « free as in freedom » license garantees the page content may be reused, access to its « code » is possible, access to edit history as well.

However, the Foundation does not garantee that a whole project/language (enwikipedia, dewikinews, frwikibooks…) full dump or partial dump will be forever free of charge. And as of today, the Foundation is not particularly making efforts to ensure the dumps are technically reusable (Delphine is correct in reminding that the biggest project/language dumps are already so big that individuals may not really use them as of today. And html dumps were just an experiment till today). In short, even if we do not meet the « financial » barrier, we are already meeting this technical barrier, which limits the reuse of our content.

Overall, the Foundation is respecting a certain engagement toward editors if each article is considered a document under GFDL. If the whole project/language is considered a document under GFDL, things are getting more fishy.

A solution might be one which has been discussed a lot in the past, but never officially implemented: Terms of Use.

The terms of use are contractual agreements between an organisation and users of a service. They generally detail restrictions on what each party is and will be responsible for in relation to the service. They may give rules concerning copyright and other legal details. Terms of Use may be set up in order to let an audience know specifically what can and cannot be done to the work with or without the creator’s permission. It is, therefore, extremely important that terms of use be as specific and accurate as possible.

For example, editors currently agree to give their work under GFDL licence (for example). Could we not imagine that the Foundation in turns agree to say that free of charge dumps will be provided at least once a month? The dumps provided could either be global, or only encompass a certain category of articles.

The Foundation may very well change its terms of agreement later, but it will have to inform editors of such a change. Right now, its mission goes beyond its simple statement. There is a non-spoken promise.

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