Norman Selfe

Tomorrow the English Wikipedia biography of  Norman Selfe will be featured on the main page. Not only is Norman a fascinatingly interesting fellow, but the very fact of his biography getting to this point is the culmination of a free-culture policy I helped create five years ago.

Norman Selfe, image from the SLNSW collection. gpo1_17900Norman was the president of both the Australian mechanical engineers’ and naval architects’ institutes as well as a member of both the British equivalent organisations. He was elected a full member of the English Institution of Civil Engineers and an honourary member of an American engineering association. He invented all sorts of things, including the first bicycle and refrigeration system in Australia. He founded the Royal Australian Historical Society, the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts as well as what has now become TAFE (Australia’s public vocational and technical training organisation – currently fighting to preserve its perpetually eroded funding) – Selfe even won the competition to design the Sydney harbour bridge. The Sydney suburb of Normanhurst was named after him during his lifetime. As the article says, “He was acknowledged upon his death as one of the best-known people in, and greatest individual influences upon, the city of Sydney.”

Selfe’s winning design for the proposed Harbour Bridge c. 1903

As a staunch advocate for the provision of practical and technical education to the masses, and the preservation of history, I suspect that Norman would have been very pleased with Wikipedia, open-access, and “maker” culture. I reckon he was a Wikipedian before his time and this Feature Article is a fitting tribute to his legacy.

However, that’s only half the story.
The original article on which the Wikipedia biography is based was written by ABC Radio National producer Catherine Freyne for the Dictionary of Sydney in 2009. Here is the original publication. At the time I was also working at The Dictionary and was the person who wrote their copyright policy which includes the option for authors to license their work under Creative Commons (CC-By-SA). Crucially, this makes the article content able to be both cited in, and imported into, Wikipedia (as I blogged about at the time).

Selfe’s 1891 scheme for remodelling transport in Sydney’s Rocks district

Since then I’ve gone on to import several Dictionary of Sydney articles to Wikipedia including, in chronological order: Glebe Island; John Mather (artist); Sydney artists’ camps; Hugo Alpen; Florence Violet McKenzie (a “Good Article” about Australia’s first female electrical engineer); AWA Tower; Henri L’Estrange (also a “Good Article” about this accident prone tightrope walker); Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts; and of course Norman Selfe.

Tourists ride in a coal skip on the Selfe-designed rail incline – now the popular Sydney tourist destination “the Katoomba scenic railway”, 1915

Aafter all these years, this is the first article that I have taken to Feature status – so it’s particularly special to me. Also, because I nurtured Norman through “new”, “Did you know?”, “Good Article” and “Feature Article” processes I was given the “Four Award”, of which I am especially proud. I’ve made several hundred edits since importing Norman, added copious footnotes and taken it through four peer reviews (1, 2, 3, 4), but underneath it is still Catherine’s work – and as such she gets attribution at the very bottom of the article too.

The “Four award“. There are currently only 423 other such articles.

The final reason I’m particularly happy about this article appearing on the main page on Saturday is because, serendipitously, that is also the day that voting opens on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees community elections – for which I am a candidate. I didn’t nominate Norman to be “Today’s Featured Article” so I’m hoping this is a positive omen for the elections! Active Wikimedians – don’t forget to vote!!

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ALRC Copyright Inquiry – Copyright in Public Domain Art

The Australian Law Reform Commission is currently undertaking a review of the Copyright Act – known as the Copyright and the Digital Economy Inquiry. The terms of reference and associated issues paper are broad and give tantalising hope that some genuinely positive user-centric reforms are being discussed. From the terms of reference:

Amongst other things, the ALRC is to consider whether existing exceptions are appropriate and whether further exceptions should:

  • recognise fair use of copyright material;
  • allow transformative, innovative and collaborative use of copyright materials to create and deliver new products and services of public benefit; and
  • allow appropriate access, use, interaction and production of copyright material online for social, private or domestic purposes.

Large copyright graffiti sign on cream colored wall

Currently, Australia is the only (?) country where kids viewing websites in a school classroom requires paying a fee. This is because a statutory license specifically for schools is written into the current law. I don’t mean closed-access journals or even subscription services, I mean just regular, ordinary websites such as blogs or news. With the increasing use of digital educational resources, the amount schools have to pay is taking up an increasing proportion of the Education Department’s ever decreasing budget. Equally, even though Australian local councils are required to publish people’s development applications for public consultation, they are also expected to pay a fee to put the plans on their websites as this would (apparently) otherwise be considered a copyright infringement!  Both cases make a mockery of the “digital economy” – you have to pay fees to do something digitally that would be free if it were on paper.

Unsurprisingly, the beneficiary of these kinds of things is primarily the collecting societies (like CAL) who take a cut of each fee and invest the profits in lobbying for further fees and the general spreading of fear, uncertainty and doubt about copyright – that is, “copyFUD”.  So,  you can imagine that these kinds of organisations are none too happy with the prospect of a nice flexible Fair Use system like in the US to replace these license systems. It would kill the goose that lays their golden eggs.

Given the nature of the questions asked in the aforementioned Issues Paper, I’m cautiously optimistic that this review will mark the turning of the tide in how restrictive copyright has become. I believe we’ve now passed “peak copyright” and are starting to swing back away from the vested interests of “big content”. Even the US Republican party is making surprisingly awesome statements (WELL worth reading).

Meanwhile …

this year I’m studying for a WIPO sponsored Masters in Intellectual Property Law. For the thesis component of this course I chose to write about the subject that got me involved in copyright law in the first place, and ultimately caused me to create GLAM-WIKI: the highly contentious idea that a faithful reproduction of a copyrightable work creates a new, independent, copyright term. To give a specific example: what is the copyright status of the image below (a faithful reproduction of Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams (1890), one of Australia’s most recognisable paintings and important cultural artifacts) when it is created by its gallery owner and displayed on its website? Does it have a separate copyright status as a new work or is it Public Domain like the original? You will be unsurprised to learn that I firmly believe that the latter position is correct.

My thesis for the Masters offered a summary of the different approaches that museums in Australia, the UK and the US take on this issue, followed by an analysis of the legal precedents in those countries. It concluded with my recommendations for how the situation could be clarified in Australia. I am particularly indebted to my friend Kenneth Crews for his fantastic series of papers on this topic and to Europeana for walking-the-talk with their PD Charter and their Yellow Milkmaid report. Thanks also Barry Szczesny (American Association of Museums Government Affairs Counsel) for making such a shameless speech – in my opinion the copyright-in-scans equivalent of the “47% comment“.

And… I received the results back the other day – an “I-couldn’t-be-any-happier” 90%!

Knowing that better people than I am would be making solid submissions on the “popular” topics, and that the copyright-in-scans issue would probably be forgotten, I decided to modify my thesis to make it into a submission for the ALRC review. So, mine is officially number 136, right down the bottom in the “from individuals” section of the official list of received submissions between the eight (!)  from the prolific Matthew Rimmer. You can read the whole thing by downloading that PDF, or viewing it on Scribd. I’ve also embedded it here (it’s licensed CC-BY). I would really appreciate it if you do read it and that you leave any comments below.

I think it’s fairly clear that the courts in Australia, the UK and especially the USA are agreed that a mere mechanical reproduction of a Public Domain artwork is also PD – and the major museums are basically just hoping that no one will notice… (see “legal situation” beginning page 8 of the submission for details of this analysis). However, what I find problematic is that most digitisation is NOT merely mechanical as it often involves some element of post-production. Even though precedents such as Bridgeman v Corel couldn’t be clearer in stating PD=PD, neither it nor any other precedent says anything about what happens when the museum uses photoshop, for example, to adjust the digital image in order to better replicate the original colours  – the common practice. I argue that the entire point of the post-production is to imitate ever more closely the original work and remove any artistic interpretation (and therefore copyrightability) in the new digital image (see “post production” beginning page 14). Hiding behind post-production and combining that with copyright-like terms and conditions (and occasionally TPMs/DRM) are the methods by which museums often claim copyright in PD digitisations. The justifications for doing this are twofold – financial and ethical (see “justifications” beginning page 4).

There is increasing evidence that a image-licensing system is not profitable (see “counter-arguments” beginning page 5) but what truly makes me livid me is when I am told that there is a need to claim Copyright “in order to preserve the integrity of the work”. It is indisputable that cultural institutions have a duty of care for their collections. I am not denying that they do. Moreover there are often donor-restrictions or indigenous cultural rights considerations to account for. However, it is never the curators or conservators – those who are charged with that duty – who express the desire to “preserve integrity” through restrictive digital access. Rather, it is the sales and marketing managers who make this argument, using the curators as a shield, so as to preserve privileged access over the collection in order to execute a business model based on enforced scarcity.

I often refer to this justification as “the tea towel problem” and Kathleen Butler brilliantly calls it “Keeping the World Safe from Naked-Chicks-in-Art Refrigerator Magnets: The Plot to Control Art Images in the Public Domain through Copyrights in Photographic and Digital Reproductions“. This is where “Integrity” concerns are conveniently ignored when it comes to the ways the art is remixed as merchandise and sold in the museum’s own shop.

For example, in the Louvre

In the end, I make four recommendations (elaborated in the submission, starting page 18):

  1. Declare a high originality threshold of copyright in works that specifically excludes effort, skill or expense as relevant factors.
  2. Stipulate that a recreator’s intent should be a key test in determining the threshold of originality for digitised works. This is in order to counteract claims that changes in post-production are inherently worthy of new copyright.
  3. Declare that the Public Domain cannot be “contracted out”. That is, agreements which purport to exclude or limit the rights associated with the statutory limitation of Copyright should not be enforceable.
  4. Finally, that it should not be considered an infringement to circumvent a TPM/DRM if the purpose of doing so is solely to access Public Domain works.

The ALRC is due to make its final recommendations in a year’s time, and will release a discussion paper in response to everyone’s submissions at some point before then. Here’s hoping my submission, or at least this particular issue, gets a gurnsey!

I look forward to your comments on my thesis/submission below 🙂

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Training in the Australian Outback – Photo essay

Over the last week, and I have been travelling around Central Western Queensland with representatives from the State Library of Queensland delivering some Wikipedia training to the local librarian, history and tourism communities. This is part of a partnership between the library and Wikimedia Australia to bring Wikimedia to the bush – to help the outback communities share their stories with the world.

While the training we provided was not substantively different from Wikipedia academies anywhere else in the world, this week was a rare opportunity to visit a special part of my own country that very few ever get the chance to see. So, rather than describe our lesson plan, I thought I would publish this little photo essay of the week instead.

Coming in to land at Charleville, our base for the week (google map link for context). To give you a bit of context of the scale we’re talking here, this region is in the Australian federal parliament seat of “Maranoa” which covers an area of 731,00 square kilometres. That’s larger than any of the countries in Western Europe. There’s even a government rebate on satellite phones…

After the flight to Charleville we drove North for the first training sessions in the town of Tambo – population <400 but with two great pubs 🙂 We used the WP article about the town as our training starting point, so hopefully it will continue to develop.

Our gregarious guides from the State Library – Troy and Ruth – with the boab tree outside Tambo town hall. All credit to them for managing the logistics of this trip (and being great companions).

When they say “road train” they’re not kidding (and they get bigger still). The key industry of the area is cattle grazing – the animals are transported in these. We heard a fair bit from the locals at the bar about how worried they were about the threat of Coal Seam Gas mining disrupting the water-table and thereby the grazing land.

The classic Tambo post office (1904). That vehicle is called a ute, short for utility, not a “pick up” – despite what the Americans (and Wikipedia) might tell you.

Yes, it’s a token Kangaroo photo 🙂 They were very curious about us, but bounded off when we got any closer.

The Barcoo River at Tambo – straight from a Banjo Patterson poem. This season has been one of devastating floods in Queensland, but the landscape is now abnormally green and lush.

Back on the road, heat-haze and endless horizon included.  Driving out to Quilpie, famous for its boulder opal deposits and for being the end of the railway line out west. We used these WP articles in our training session for editing practice – tapping in to the trainees’ extensive local knowledge!

And in the least expected place, on the Western fringe of Quilpie, we found Lyn Barnes’ beautiful gallery.

Outside Lyn’s Gallery the local primary school kids came to eat lunch in the shade. The horses came up the paddock to have a chat too.

Some of our trainees after the editing session at the town public library. You’ll note the serious gender-gap of the participants – in the opposite direction to the usual Wikimedia statistics!

A double-rainbow (all the way!) as an evening storm rolls in to Quilpie to cool things down. Whereas most of the world would be unhappy with this, the locals greeted us with “enjoy the rain”.

Posted in education | 7 Comments

National Museum of Australia Situation Report

As mentioned in my previous post, I have been offered a “2012 Director’s Fellowship” at the National Museum of Australia (NMA). This is a six-month post where I’ve been asked to create a strategy for how the museum can build a long-term and mutually-beneficial partnership with Wikimedia that fits their into their own priorities. Last week was the first stage of this project – with my submission of a “situation report” and traveling to Canberra to deliver a workshop for staff and meeting with representatives of each department to hear about their specific needs.

[Vicki Humphrey (head of conservation) and Tikka Wilson (head of web) investigate the amazing “Saw Doctor’s Wagon” in the collection – being restored to working order for a forthcoming exhibition about conservation techniques.]

At the beginning of this fellowship I really wanted to try and make a qualitative and quantitative assessment of the current and relationship between the museum and the Wikimedia projects. As far as I know this kind of comprehensive report has not been made before so I thought that I should give it a go! I think that this kind of report is especially needed since, as the number of GLAM-Wikimedia partnerships increases around the world, partnerships should be increasingly evidence-based and targeted in their approach. The National Museum was kind enough to let me publish this under a free-license so other organisations can potentially modify this model to fit their own needs.

If you can’t see the document embedded below, you can also download the PDF at Wikimedia Commons. I’ve divided the report into six sections: inbound traffic to the NMA; search engine optimisation; outbound links from Wikipedia; presence on Wikimedia Commons; presence on Wikipedia; and presence elsewhere.

To make this report I’ve relied heavily on the metrics tools built by the illustrious Magnus Manske, many of which I originally asked him to build back when I was “Wikipedian in Residence” at the British Museum. I would also like to thank Ed Summers (@Edsu) for relaunching and modifying his Linkypedia tool specifically to help me with this report (he has also written that story up in his own blog). Thanks also to Sydney Wikipedian and NMA in-house Wikipedian Shamto for assisting with the staff training session and department meetings. And of course, especial thanks to Tikka Wilson (@Tikkaw) at the National Museum for giving me access to their own metrics and for setting up and coordinating this fellowship in the first place!

You’ll note that in providing this analysis I’m deliberately not drawing conclusions or recommendations in this report, but merely reporting the situation as it is. After last week’s meetings Tikka and I certainly have lots of ideas and exciting potential projects, but that’s a different story for a future blogpost…

If you have any questions about the situation report, including any critiques or suggestions for improvement, please leave them in the comments.

Posted in museums, National Museum of Australia | 2 Comments


After nearly a year down,  my blog is finally alive again!
My “GLAM Fellowship” with the Wikimedia Foundation concluded at the end of 2011, and as a result the beginning of 2012 has seen lots of changes for me, so I will apologise in advance for the length of this post.

  • I’m now a project officer for the ARC Centre for Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation (CCi) – which is the group that runs Creative Commons Australia. My role is to assist Australian cultural organisation in adopting CC for their content. Hopefully I’ll have lots of announcements from that over the next year…
  • I’ve also been offered the role of “2012 Director’s Fellowship” at the National Museum of Australia – in order to develop a comprehensive “Wikimedia strategy” for the organisation including training, a situation report and three year plan.
  • I’ve enrolled in the QUT/WIPO Masters of Intellectual Property Law  – because the world needs MORE copyright lawyers!
  • Oh, and I got engaged 🙂

But there’s something else…
Every two years it is the chance for the Wikimedia Chapters to nominate two people to the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation – the full process for this is described here. After being involved in the Wikiverse since 2005, I’ve decided to become a candidate for this very important position.

At this point in the process two years ago, much to her credit, Phoebe Ayers made public on her blog the fact of her [eventually successful] candidacy as well as her thoughts and election statement. So today, I’m doing the same thing here.

== Wikium Vitae ==

I can honestly say that every stage of my professional life has been influenced by my involvement in Wikimedia and the free-culture movement more generally. I have variously worked for the online history project the Dictionary of Sydney; for the founding member of the “free access to law” movement AustLII; and most recently, for the Wikimedia Foundation and now Creative Commons.

Academically, I have a Bachelors of Globalisation Studies and  my honours thesis subject was “The academic lineage of Wikipedia: Connections and disconnections in the theory and practice of history”. For this I earned the UNSW 2008 University medal in history. I am now undertaking a Masters degree in Intellectual Property law.

Within Wikimedia, I have had various formal and informal roles, including as:

As a result of this experience, I have had the opportunity to meet many many Wikimedians, free-culture advocates and GLAMs around the world. I have also given dozens of formal presentations about Wikimedia, including a few conference keynote addresses and most recently a live TV interview about the SOPA strike (full list with links). Finally, I am one of the very few people who has been both a Chapter executive and an employee of the Foundation.

== Candidacy Statement ==

With regards to Wikipolitics, it always feels like right now is the biggest or most disruptive argument we’ve ever had – until you step back for a day or so and remember the other big arguments we had in the past! But at this critical time in the Wikimedia Movement’s history I believe that it is especially important that we get things right. The Wikimedia Foundation, and by extension the Movement, has been going from strength to strength in public areas (visibility, impact, quality, financial and technical stability) but many of the internal problems remain unresolved. I would categorise these as broadly  “community development and communication” issues that have led to a perceived gap between several groups within the Movement – a “democratic deficit” if you will.

From my perspective it looks like each of the Wikimedia Foundation, the Chapters and the general editing community all feels that it is the group with the least power and is the most misunderstood. It is my perception that many in the WMF feel as if they are a “whipping boy“, blamed no matter what they do; that many in the Chapters feel as if they are being sidelined and regarded as unhelpful despite their best efforts; and that many in the editing community feel as if their needs are widely ignored – especially if they are not from the English Wikipedia. Like all generalisations, this simple analysis lacks nuance or counterexamples – and there are many – but I think it is broadly true.

The ways that I would like to help bridge this gap (whether it be one that is real or perceived) is by focusing on four distinct areas: 1. Board role; 2. Chapter development; 3. Community support; and 4. WMF Human Resources.

1. Board role

Whilst the WMF Board of Trustees is the highest decision-making body in the Wikimedia movement, it remains rather hidden from the general community. This is not by intention but it is the reality. I would propose a variety of transparency measures, including:

  • Name Board voters (for/against/abstain);
  • Host “office hours” and/or publish videos, community interviews, board blog, etc.;
  • Provide access to non-confidential reports prepared for the board in advance of meetings for comment;
  • Formally approve annual grants to Chapters (or fundraising approval) on advice from Staff. (Similarly to how the Board already formally approves new Chapter creation on advice from ChapCom);
  • Provide updates on current discussions whilst consensus is still forming, but once it is decided, make directions to WMF more clearly less room for interpretation;
  • For resolutions that contain policy, publish drafts for comment and review (similar to the recent Terms of Use rewrite).

2. Chapter development

This particular point has been debated back and forth for years. And, whilst we are getting better, there is still not a consensus about what the relationship between the WMF and the Chapters should be – this has focused most especially on the issue of fundraising. In my opinion, I subscribe to the principle of subsidiarity – that matters should be handled by the least central competent authority. I also believe that our mission is a very broad one and to achieve it we need to see ourselves in the future at a scale and level of impact like the Red Cross. What they are to disaster relief, we are to knowledge: global, neutral, free.  Because of these two points I believe it is the Wikimedia Foundation’s responsibility to actively assist in the capacity development of the network of Chapters. Without such a network I believe we cannot achieve our mission. I am not saying that the WMF has been actively ignoring the Chapters. I generally support an expanded framework for affiliation of Wikimedia groups. However, I do think we need to ensure Chapters are effective – rather than trying to route around them. We should:

  • Plan for a fundraising future where virtually all of the money from the “annual banner campaign” goes through Chapters. Obviously this will not happen for many years but that is the general direction I believe we should be heading. (I blogged about this general idea almost four years ago here).
  • Develop a plan for how to structure WMF (legally, financially and organisationally) when there’s a national Wikimedia-USA Chapter with fundraising capacity (a corollary of the point above, discussed in more detail here).
  • Treat Chapters according to their capacity and create a model of rights and responsibilities with “tiers” for different levels of development. There should be specific WMF staff liaison and guidelines for each level. For example: New Chapter with no funds; Entirely volunteer Chapter with funds; Partially professionalised chapter with annual grant funding; fully professionalised chapter with fundraising.
  • Actively support ChapCom to increase its efficiency in providing assistance to new/prospective Chapters, and develop rules for disendorsement of non-functioning Chapters (a corollary of the point above).
  • Obtain and publish the financial compliance requirements for large international money transfers to/from USA for each Chapter country. This allows for money to be transparently and legally moved to where it is most needed in a way that is agnostic to where the money is raised.
  • Develop and maintain a “global budget” that shows how much money each organisation in the movement is planning to raise, how much they are planning to spend (and the growth %) broken down by categories. This also provides clear expectations and data for long term planning.
  • Develop expense oversight committee for whole movement’s budget. This is similar to Sue’s recommendation #4 or the Board’s recommended FDC but is different in that it is for “reviewing” rather than “allocating” funds. (This is a corollary of the point above).
  • Coordinate global priority programs with the Chapters taking the management and funding at the national/local level, as distinct from running only outreach programs directly managed by WMF staff. For example, the “Education program” should be managed and promoted by the local organisation while the coordination and associated course management software should be developed centrally (which would help avoid problems like this).

3. Community support

I completely agree with and support the WMF’s focus on new user retention as their primary metric for success over the next few years. On all other aspects of the strategic plan’s goals we are moving forwards (e.g. higher quality, more content) but in this we are actually moving backwards. Clearly this needs addressing and I’ve blogged about editor retention before. However, by focusing on new users to the exclusion of the existing community, the WMF risks seeing the existing community as the problem rather than part of the solution. To quote a veteran Australian politician, I worry that we are fast moving towards a position where it becomes “…so reliant on focus groups that it listens more to those who don’t belong to it than to those who do.”[1] Focusing on helping the existing community do their work more efficiently and effectively will mean that newbies are less likely to be turned away when the do join up. Building new “curation” tools such as the New Page Triage system is an excellent move in this direction.

One of the most common complaints from the existing community is that the WMF has an overwhelming focus on Wikipedia and virtually none for the sister projects. Therefore I would propose to undertake a formal “brand review” of the current projects. We should:

  • Identify the community expectations of what minimum standard of technical/organisational support WMF hosting should provide;
  • Identify “under-supported” sister-projects that have high growth potential for relatively small investment (e.g. Wiktionary, Wikisource) and build plans to directly support them. (this is related to Erik Moeller’s presentation at Wikimania 2010);
  • Identify wikis that can be merged to consolidate the community and discussion e.g. OutreachWiki merged with MetaWiki or WikiSpecies merged with WikiData (currently being built);
  • Invest to remove software-enforced division between projects e.g. global userpages;
  • Devote specific attention to supporting the needs of the “power-users”;
  • Run regular “by popular request” software development projects which ask the community(s) to build consensus for most wanted features, and promises to invest in the results (within reason, of course).
  • Develop a movement-wide calendar to coordinate software releases, outreach events, conferences…

4. WMF human resources 

As a former staffer of the WMF I know how hard everyone there works to do their jobs well (and transparently), how high the staff morale generally is, and how supportive the organisation’s policies are to its employees. However, there remain issues that cause resentment and reduce effectiveness. This is not the direct purview of the Board of Trustees, but it is something that the Board can direct the WMF executive to focus more on. We should:

  • Decrease recruitment process length and increase process clarity. Good applicants are being unintentionally turned away  as a result of vague and drawn-out hiring processes. Often, no one is sure who has approval to give a formal “yes” while the applicant is given a months-long runaround.
  • Build systems to stop “bait and switch” hiring practices – where the real job turns out to be much less inspiring and more restricted than the advertised role.
  • Increase everyday visibility of WMF staff to community, such as videoing office lunchtime presentations and providing greater detail on staff wiki pages.
  • Increase job autonomy and personal empowerment within assigned tasks.

Thanks for reading down this far, those of you who have! I look forward to your comments or questions.

[edit: my formal candidacy page is on-wiki here and you can read my answers to the many “questions to all candidates” here.]

Peace, Love & Metadata.

Posted in wikimedia foundation | 12 Comments