Can You Be Sued For Plagiarizing Wikipedia?

Okay, copyright mavens, it’s time to play Steal From The Stars. For a chance to beat the other couple and go to the playoff round, all you have to do is correctly rule on the following case:

Michel Houellebecq is a bestselling French novelist whose just-published thriller, La Carte et le Territoire, is “a runaway favorite to win the most prestigious of French literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt, this autumn,” according to John Lichfield writing in The Independent. However, Houellebecq has been accused of lifting verbatim several lengthy passages from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the collaborative Internet encyclopedia, using anonymous contributors, that has virally grown into a proleterian alternative to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

But here’s the wrinkle: Houellebecq freely admits that he lifted the passages,which include a word for 200-word Wiki piece about the sex life of flies. Furthermore, he does not consider what he did to be plagiarism. And neither does his publisher, the distinguished house of Flammarion. The author says the accusations are “ridiculous” and his use of the material was “artistic”; his publisher says Houellebecq’s lifted texts are stylistic eccentricities but not theft.

To understand their rationales you can read Lichfield’s article here. But don’t peek yet – you haven’t answered the quiz, remember?

The question is, did Houellebecq plagiarize?  Can Wikipedia sue him?

The answer is no and no. What he did may have been immoral, unethical or reprehensible. Or for all we know it was indeed artistic.  But it was not illegal.

The content published in Wikipedia is not copyrighted in the usual sense – that is, it is not covered by the US Copyright statutes designed to protect intellectual property.  That is because contributors are required to leave their claim to copyright ownership at the door, as it were, when their text is accepted for inclusion in the Wiki “book”.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes your right to use texts published on its website:

The licenses Wikipedia uses grant free access to our content in the same sense that free software is licensed freely. Wikipedia content can be copied, modified, and redistributed if and only if the copied version is made available on the same terms to others and acknowledgment of the authors of the Wikipedia article used is included (a link back to the article is generally thought to satisfy the attribution requirement; see below for more details)*. Copied Wikipedia content will therefore remain free under appropriate license and can continue to be used by anyone subject to certain restrictions, most of which aim to ensure that freedom. This principle is known as copyleft in contrast to typical copyright licenses.

* In compliance with the terms of Wikipedia’s license I am hereby linking back to the source of the above quote: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Copyrights

Contributions to Wikipedia do however come under the provisions of another body of copyright law known as the Berne Convention, but it is “formally licensed to the public under one or several liberal licenses including something called the “Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike”. You can look it up on Wikipedia but for a clear-as-crystal exposition you can read this essay by Cory Doctorow.

Finally, here in its entirety is Wikipedia’s statement on copyright. We’re not sure Monsieur Houllebecq and his publisher read it before undertaking to use Wikipedia texts because they did not attribute their source.  So, technically they violated their Creative Commons license. Do you know a good avocat?

Richard Curtis

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Important note: The Wikimedia Foundation does not own copyright on Wikipedia article texts and illustrations. It is therefore pointless to email our contact addresses asking for permission to reproduce articles or images, even if rules at your company or school or organization mandate that you ask web site operators before copying their content.

The only WP content you should contact the Wikimedia Foundation about is the trademarked Wikipedia/Wikimedia logos, which are not freely usable without permission.

Permission to reproduce and modify text on Wikipedia has already been granted to anyone anywhere by the authors of individual articles as long as such reproduction and modification complies with licensing terms (see below and Wikipedia: Mirrors and forks for specific terms). Images may or may not permit reuse and modification; the conditions for reproduction of each image should be individually checked. The only exceptions are those cases in which editors have violated Wikipedia policy by uploading copyrighted material without authorization, or with copyright licensing terms which are incompatible with those Wikipedia authors have applied to the rest of Wikipedia content. While such material is present on the Wikipedia (before it is detected and removed), it will be a copyright violation to copy it. For permission to use it, one must contact the owner of the copyright of the text or illustration in question; often, but not always, this will be the original author.

If you wish to reuse content from Wikipedia, first read the Reusers’ rights and obligations section. You should then read the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GNU Free Documentation License.

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5 Responses to Can You Be Sued For Plagiarizing Wikipedia?

  1. Steve Boyett says:

    Mr. Houellebecq was well within his rights to use the Wikipedia material, but if I were arguing the Wikipedia case, I would claim that Mr. Houellebecq is in violation because the access he provides to the quoted information is not free — you have to buy his book to obtain it. He is earning revenue partially due to public-domain material as content in a retail item.

  2. Steve Boyett says:

    I feel like I’m in a Disney movie about feline lawyers. THE AVOCATS — Coming This Summer!

  3. vbnjm, says:

    Wikipedia contributions are for the most part under copyright. If they were not the license wikipedia uses wouldn’t work.

    Since Houllebecq failed to credit the authors and failed to mention that the work was under the license in question his use violates copyright.

  4. Steve Boyett says:

    @vbnjm: define “copyright”. Wikipedia spells out its usage rights clearly and in detail, and they are a far cry from “all rights reserved,” having much more in common with liberal Creative Commons licenses or open-source usage agreements.

    Houllebecq most definitely should have attributed his sources, but that’s not a violation of “copyright” but a violation of Wikipedia’s terms of use.

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