Posted on 6 October 2014 - By Michelle Paulson & Stephen LaPorte

3 contentious, complex copyright challenges facing Wikipedia


As one of the world's largest repositories, Wikipedia is often the first stop for those seeking information about everything from Star Trek to Angkor Wat to DNA nanotechnology.

Wikipedia is collaboratively written, edited, and curated by a global user community and is available in 287 languages. The shared goal of this community is to compile the sum of all human knowledge and make it available for anyone to share and remix.

However, ambiguous and varying (sometimes contradictory!) copyright law around the world poses challenges to fulfilling this goal. In this post, we explore a few of the tricky copyright scenarios that the Wikipedia community faces on a daily basis.

Fair use

Under U.S. copyright law, the fair use doctrine allows limited use of copyrighted material if the use passes a four-factor balancing test. For example, in certain limited circumstances, Wikipedia articles may include quotes from other writers, limited-resolution images, or short audio samples.

Unfortunately, the four factors for fair use in the U.S. are not always clear, and case law only provides patchwork guidance. Outside the U.S., there are significantly different approaches to fair use, fair dealingright of quotation, or similar rules.

As a result, Wikipedians have developed detailed guidance on when fair use content is acceptable, and the policies are different for each language edition of Wikipedia.

You can see the consequence of this policy in the images that illustrate the English Wikipedia article on Godzilla (which includes a low resolution movie poster, as fair use) to the same article on German Wikipedia (instead of a fair use image, this article uses a photograph of a monument to the lizard).

Copyright Protection and Trademarks

Wikipedians strive to properly identify and label individual works as either in the public domain, under a free license, or copyrighted. Accurate labeling is critical to proper reuse of a work.

However, this determination is sometimes difficult to make in the case of logos. While many logos easily meet the requirements of trademark protection, it is often unclear whether a logo warrants copyright protection as well. U.S. copyright law requires a work to pass a certain threshold of originality in order to qualify for copyright protection.

Unfortunately, whether a logo is original, particularly if it is a relatively simple design, is frequently ambiguous. For example, the logo for Best Western, an American chain of hotels, was submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office for registration and was denied while a design for a similarly simple car dealership logo for Car Credit City was approved.

This kind of inconsistency makes it extremely difficult for users to decide whether simple graphics, such as logos, qualify for copyright protection.


In 1994, the United States passed the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), which included a confusing and controversial amendment to theCopyright Act that restored copyright protection to certain works that had entered the public domain.

The URAA was unsuccessfully challenged before the United States Supreme Court in Golan v. Holder, which discussed the constitutionality of removing material from the public domain.

As a result of the URAA, there are now a number of works, including symphonies from Igor Stravinsky and films by Alfred Hitchcock, that were removed from the public domain and are no longer free to be used in Wikipedia articles.

From the perspective of an international community, this is particularly unfair given the significant length of copyright term in the United States.


Wikipedia and its sister projects have a set of policies, both written and implemented by users, which help them navigate the many difficulties and ambiguities in international copyright.

Using these policies, the vast majority of copyright questions are expertly handled by the users who write and maintain Wikipedia. However, on occasion, the Wikimedia Foundation receives a takedown demand, which we carefully scrutinize before considering removal of any content.

We only remove allegedly infringing content when we believe a request is legally valid. Otherwise, we will push back in defense of our users' collective decision regarding content.

This summer, the Wikimedia Foundation released its first transparency report, which provides an overview of the types of takedown demands that we receive. Projects like Wikipedia illustrate the importance of advocating for a vibrant public domain, and our transparency report helps to shed light on some of the challenges in our mission to share free knowledge.

What are the main challenges posed by differing copyright laws around the world? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below


Image Source: Godzilla Statue in Tokyo, by Wikipedia user Subcommandante, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 / original image cropped and resized.

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