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Can You Legally Sell Wikipedia Content (Like in an eBook, for Example)?

January 31, 2012

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This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while: Can you take Wikipedia content, repackage it, and sell it (in ebook form, for example)? Is that legal? I did some digging and here’s what I found out.

Disclaimer 1: Before I get into the details, let me say that I’m not a lawyer. I am not providing legal advice here, and you should seek proper legal advice before taking any action based on what you read here.

Disclaimer 2: This isn’t the most fascinating subject matter, but this is something that all online content creators (bloggers, ebook authors, etc.) should have an understanding of. So even though it’s boring, you should still read this post.

Reusing Wikipedia’s text

Let’s first focus on reusing Wikipedia’s text (as opposed to images). So let’s say you want to take a bunch of different Wikipedia articles about volcanoes and combine them into a single ebook about volcanoes. Maybe your plan is sell it as a cheap Kindle ebook or something. To answer the question of whether it’s legal to resell Wikipedia content, let’s turn to Wikipedia itself. From the Reusing Wikipedia Content page, we get the following:

Wikipedia’s text content, in a nutshell, can be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license (CC-BY-SA)

Ok, so we need to figure out what the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license says. For that, let’s go to Wikipedia’s Text of Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License page. Here’s the “human readable” version:

Creative Commons Deed

There’s nothing about only being able to use the content for non-commercial purposes only. So if I understand it correctly, you can indeed take Wikipedia text content and sell it. That’s backed up by this line from the Reusing content outside Wikimedia page:

In the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-SA), re-users are free to make derivative works and copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, even commercially.

It’s those last two words that we’re interested in.

But according to the “share alike” clause, you can’t copyright your work. You couldn’t take a bunch of Wikipedia articles, combine them into an ebook and maybe edit them a bit, and then slap your copyright on there, saying that no one else can reproduce or copy the ebook. You’d still have to release the ebook under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. I suppose this means that other people could even take your ebook and sell it themselves.

Example attribution

The license above says that you can use the material as long as there’s an attribution. What should that attribution look like? This is taken from the Reusing Wikipedia Content page:

An example notice, for an article that uses the Wikipedia article Metasyntactic variable under CC-BY-SA, might read as follows:

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metasyntactic_variable”>”Metasyntactic_variable”</a>, which is released under the <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/”>Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0</a>.

(“Metasyntactic variable” and the Wikipedia URL must of course be substituted accordingly, and you should replace the link http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ to point to a local copy of the CC-BY-SA-3.0 text on your server.)

If you were to use multiple articles together, I imagine you’d have to say “This article uses material from the following Wikipedia articles,” and then list the ones you used. Also, it looks like you’d have to include a copy of the Creative Commons license in your ebook. The question, though, is whether it would be enough to include the “human readable summary” (also seen in the image above) or the full license. Since the link used in the example above points directly to the human readable summary, I’m guessing that would be sufficient. I’d probably include a copy of it at the end of the ebook.

Reusing Wikipedia’s images

Now that we’ve figured out the legalese behind using Wikipedia’s text, let’s turn to using its images. Images on Wikipedia are under a variety of licenses, as explained here and quoted below:

[O]ther media (including images) are sometimes identified as being subject to other licenses. Each media file has its own information page which includes source and licensing information. Clicking on the media file will lead to this information page. Many media files are free to use as long as you follow the terms of the licenses applied to them.

Some photos are in the public domain and have no copyright (like this image of a volcano) and you can use them however you want without having to attribute any page or state any license. Others images (like this one of a volcanic fissure in Iceland) can be used only under the conditions of the aforementioned CC-BY-SA license. And there are other images that can be used in accordance with other licenses.

From what I’ve seen, most Wikipedia images have no copyright and are either 1) in the public domain (either because the copyright has expired because of age or because the owner has released the copyright) or 2) are under the CC-BY-SA license (the one discussed at length above).

Why would someone pay you for Wikipedia content??

Maybe some of you are thinking, “Why in the world would people pay you for content that they can get for free?” An extensive answer is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to address it quickly here. It all comes down to one thing: convenience.

Here’s an example from earlier today that is actually why I wrote this post. I’m an avid climber and mountaineer, and I wanted to read about about some mountains. More specifically, I wanted to read about the 14 tallest mountains on earth, the 14 mountains that are above 8,000 meters in height. And then I thought to myself, “Man, I don’t want to sit here at my computer and read this. I’d rather just read this on my Kindle.”

Of course there are various apps and browser extensions that can convert web pages to the Kindle format. But the formatting is always messy. I’d definitely pay a dollar or two to buy a Kindle ebook that was just a compilation of all of Wikipedia’s information on those 14 mountains, especially if the formatting were good and the articles lightly edited.

Before writing this post, I thought I’d seen Wikipedia content in Amazon’s Kindle store. I just didn’t know if that was legit or illegal. After writing this post, I looked again on Amazon and saw the following examples of Wikipedia-based Kindle ebooks:

I don’t know how often these get bought — probably not terribly often — but hey, once you create the ebooks and put them on Amazon, it’s passive income. You don’t have to do anything else.

Final words

I think I’m going to try to make a few of these Wikipedia-based ebooks and see if they sell. It should make for an interesting followup post! Also, stay tuned for a post either on Friday or Tuesday (a week from today) for a post about things I learned from publishing my first Kindle ebook.

  • Would you ever buy an ebook if you knew it was just Wikipedia content? (I wouldn’t if I didn’t have a Kindle or other e-reader to read the ebooks on)
  • Have you ever considered selling Wikipedia content in some form? What was the plan? How about public domain content?
  • What are your thoughts on profiting from Wikipedia content?

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