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The German Wikipedia: Rip-Off Incorporated

It seems that plans are in the works for a slimmed down, condensed version of the German Wikipedia to be made into a printed encyclopedia book and it will be sold in bookstores for 20 Euros ($32). As many people have said, it’s “reverse publishing”. I say it’s a bit of a scam on the part of the German publisher Bertelsmann.

I am a nitty-gritty practical kind of guy and my initial thought was this : if Wikipedia is made up of voluntary user contributions, does Wikipedia first of all have legal permission from the writers to print the material? Did they get legal waivers from each contributor saying it was fine to use their work?

If so, is Bertelsmann allowed to make any money from it (seeing that the contributions were voluntary)? If so, shouldn’t some of that money make its way back to the writers who wrote the articles in the first place? I mean, every writer is entitled to a royalty. By denying the writer their royalty, Wikipedia is ripping them off big-time. No, in fact, let’s not beat around the bush here. Let’s say it for what it really is. Wikipedia is SHAFTING THEM.

The whole point of Wikipedia is to provide a voluntary online source of information. After all, it’s not so easy to create a Wikipedia page. That is why people voluntarily gave up some of their time to write the articles for free in the first place. It is a noble project, the writer believed in the project and so they participated in it. Had they known that Wikipedia would then use their work in a commercial printed venture, I’m sure they would have had second thoughts about writing those articles. At the very least they would have demanded a contract and perhaps a guarantee of financial compensation later.

It really is a damn cheek to be honest. The writers are asked to write articles under the guise of voluntary acts of kindness, they are not credited in any way and then later on, Wikipedia decides to publish that work, charge 20 Euros a pop and pockets all the money!

Wikipedia has told the media : “It is not about the money. It is a very good example of the power of free knowledge”. If the money really doesn’t matter, then why is the book so expensive? Why not give it away?

By Mark O’Neill


  1. Karen Swim

    I agree that this is wrong. As a writer, unless I sign away my rights I would expect to be compensated when my work is used for profit. I realize that web content makes this difficult to control but this is blatant, in your face theft. I have not written a wiki but unless the voluntary contributors agree to this up front it’s wrong. It would be nice if they were doing it to raise money for a worthy cause or if they were going to redistribute royalties to writers. This sort of thing would make me think twice about adding a voluntary contribution.

    Karen Swim’s last blog post..Business Writing Bad

  2. TheGNU

    There is no rip-off at all: Bertelsmann sells content written by users that _allowed_ anyone to use their content under the terms of the GNU-FDL. As long as Bertelsmann complies with the GNU-FDL it is perfectly ok.

  3. Rasmus

    Well, read the license.

  4. Mark O'Neill

    Well I am sure you are revelling in your “gotcha!” moment but the fact is, this is still wrong on so many levels.

    For example, when a person signs up for an account on Wikipedia, are they presented with this license to read? Are they warned that their work may one day end up as a commercial venture to line Wikipedia’s pockets?

    Will this book credit the writers who wrote the articles? I sincerely DOUBT it.

    Will Wikipedia pay royalties to the writers who wrote the articles? I sincerely DOUBT it.

    The bottom line is that Wikipedia has this obscure license, that you have pulled out for me, that many Wikipedia contributors probably are not even aware of and they are using it as legal cover to produce a book to make money. That book is made of articles written by writers who are not being paid for their efforts. As a professional writer, I find that very wrong on so many levels and I am sure many other professional writers will agree with me.

    Mark O’Neill’s last blog post..Links for 2008-05-05 [del.icio.us]

  5. Moritz


    I sincerely doubt that you understand what’s going on here.

    The Wikimedia Foundation will not receive any money for this.
    All profits will go to Bertelsmann. And under the terms of the Gnu Free Documentation License (which, by the way, is in no way obscure) this is perfectly legal.
    In fact, anyone can use all the articles on Wikipedia for free, either comercially or non-comercially, as long as they use the same license.

  6. Michael Brutsch

    Mark O’Neill, et. al.,

    1) The FDL is not obscure, you are merely woefully ignorant of common open source licensing.

    2) Perhaps now you (and all the other “professional” writers) have learned your lesson: do not contribute to Wikipedia! You should have known it was only a matter of time before Jimbo found a way to make money from the efforts of so many people. Now that you know, stop contributing immediately, or stop whining. You have brought this on yourself.

  7. Mark O'Neill

    And I think you are missing the point.

    How many people, when they sign up for Wikipedia writing and editing, know about the existence of this GNU license? Are they presented with it when they make their account? Are they asked to read it and agree with it before making their account? Are they asked to agree to a legal waiver that says that the Wikimedia Foundation is allowed to use their contributions for commercial gain in the future?

    I didn’t know about this license. How many others don’t know about it? How many others write articles, unaware that their work is actually subject to this license? How many contributors would actually NOT contribute, if they realised that this license existed?

    That’s why I said that it was obscure. It isn’t exactly shoved in people’s faces when they start to edit articles.

    Mark O’Neill’s last blog post..Links for 2008-05-05 [del.icio.us]

  8. Mark O'Neill

    Michael : whining? I call it a “constructive discussion”. Whining is for kids. I haven’t been a kid for a LONG time.

    Mark O’Neill’s last blog post..Links for 2008-05-05 [del.icio.us]

  9. Michael Brutsch

    Ok, fine, we understand the massive scope of your ignorance. You just signed up for Wikipedia, blithely believing that all of your hard work would be justly and fairly used for noble purposes. As a professional writer, one assumes that you are well-read, so it seems odd that you would not be aware that there is No Such Thing. I understand that you are distressed at your initial ignorance, and the ignorance of your fellow writers. But now that you are aware, you can only take steps forward, to correct your past mistakes, and never again contribute to Wikipedia. If you must continue to contribute, do so silently. And let this be a lesson to you, the next time someone wants your free labour in exchange for their lofty ideals.

  10. Michael Brutsch

    “Constructive discussion”? What possible constructive outcome could you possibly be hoping for? That we go back in time, and make you aware of the license under which you submitted your work? Most of your comments revolve around the fact that, as far as you can see, no one else knew about the FDL. I don’t see any constructive content in your post. What, pray tell, is your proposed solution to this problem?

  11. Mark O'Neill

    Michael : I am actually rather bemused at your VERY aggressive comments. I wrote the initial post as a means to spark a constructive discussion about Wikipedia and whether or not it was proper or not for them to use voluntary contributions in a commercial enterprise.

    But you seem to taking this extremely personally, rather too personally actually. It makes me wonder what your agenda is. Do you perhaps work for Wikipedia? Are you an editor?

    Perhaps I am a bit naive. Perhaps I do see the good in people where there is none. Perhaps that is a failing in me. There, you’ve got me. But I still feel I have a valid point – that many people probably are not aware of this license, that they contributed to the Wikipedia project, feeling they were contributing to a noble cause, spreading knowledge, and now they are perhaps feeling a bit exploited, seeing their words in a book with a $32 price tag on the front.

    I’m sure you are laughing right now at my “ignorance” but frankly I don’t care.

    Not everyone is computer-savvy. Not everyone can pull up a GNU license on the computer just like that. So please don’t get all Arnold Schwarzenegger on me just because I bring up what I feel is a valid point. You have your opinions and I have mine. I think we can have a civil discussion like two grown adults without resorting to aggressive comments.

    Mark O’Neill’s last blog post..Links for 2008-05-05 [del.icio.us]

  12. Michael Brutsch

    Wow. Such naiveté is charming. You might want to be more careful on the intarwebs; they are scary and dangerous, and not kind to folks like yourself.

  13. Mark O'Neill

    and such hostile aggression from you is downright scary.

    I note that you never answered my question. Do you work for Wikipedia? Are you connected to them in any way? Why are you taking this so personally?

    Mark O’Neill’s last blog post..Links for 2008-05-05 [del.icio.us]

  14. Michael Brutsch

    No, I do not work for Wikipedia. I do not contribute to Wikipedia; I wouldn’t let my dog use Wikipedia. It is utter shite.

    As for “taking it personally”, I just despise stupidity, in all it’s forms. You couldn’t be bothered to find out the rules for the site where you did a bunch of free work, and now you don’t like it. That’s fine, but then you want to publicly whine about it, in an attempt to find others who feel the same way. I have no sympathy for fools.

  15. Mark O'Neill

    The same could be said for you – you want to publicly rant about it in an attempt to find somebody who will eventually agree with you and join in with you. Good luck with that Mr Brutsch.

    I am not “whining” about it and I am not looking for people to agree with me. I am simply writing about an issue that I disagree with in an attempt to begin a constructive discussion. Newspaper journalists do it all the time in opinion pieces so why not bloggers? The internet is just as good a medium as newspapers to get opinions across.

    I don’t want people to agree with me. If people agreed with me, then it would be very boring around here! I don’t want to be surrounded by “yes” men! I want people like you to disagree! I want a debate! I want differing points of view!

    Saying that however, I think the ping-pong between you and I has gone on long enough. We’ve gone beyond constructive discussion and you’re now descending into personal attacks. So I am not responding to it anymore.

    Mark O’Neill’s last blog post..Links for 2008-05-05 [del.icio.us]

  16. Al

    Mark, as you may know, you don’t generally need to “sign up” to Wikipedia to make an edit (with some exceptions), so most people may not know about the GNU license as they read Wikipedia.

    Editing, however, is a different story. When you edit, you type your text into a big editing box. Right below that editing box, and more importantly, right above the Submit button, the following text is displayed: “Content that violates any copyright will be deleted. Encyclopedic content must be verifiable. You agree to license your contributions under the GFDL”

    The word “GFDL” is a clickable link. The first sentence of the GFDL reads: “The purpose of this License is to make a manual, textbook, or other functional and useful document “free” in the sense of freedom: to assure everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially.”

    Doesn’t get much clearer than that.

  17. Raziel JaTier

    I’m sorry, Mark O’Neill, but clearly you don’t have a firm grasp on the underlying philosophy of many of the people contributing to Wikipedia. We contribute to Wikipedia, because our works become part of the public domain, free for everyone to use how they see fit.

    This is the concept of freedom of information. Just because some publisher wants to compile some articles, print them on a dead tree, and try to sell them, it doesn’t make the information unavailable, it just means that if you want a dead-tree copy, you can purchase it from them.

    It also doesn’t stop me from taking the same articles, making a book out of them, and giving it away for free. I’m not going to, because publishing is expensive. I can’t blame them for wanting to charge.

    If someone wants to buy their book, more power to them, but on the other hand why buy something that you can get for free? What value are they going to add to the book that you can’t get from the original site.

  18. SoloGen

    Michael Brutsch’s point is valid that one should be more careful when s/he is devoting some time for free. If s/he finds it unpleasant that someone else may later profit from her/his work, s/he better stop immediately or at least read all licenses carefully.
    All said, I believe Michael could write his comments in a much more polite way.

    SoloGen’s last blog post..Embedding, Metric Entropy, etc.

  19. Raziel JaTier

    You should also consider reading the vision and mission statement of a company before you start handing your works over to them. Wikimedia Foundation has always acted consistently with their mission statement, which is why I don’t have a problem contributing to them.

    Before you contribute any content, you must agree to have your work published under the GDFL license. Which allows derivative works, such as this book, to be created.


    All text in Wikipedia is covered by GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), a copyleft license permitting the redistribution, creation of derivative works, and commercial use of content while authors retain copyright of their work.[84] The position that Wikipedia is a merely a hosting service has been successfully used as a defense in court.[85][86] Wikipedia has been working on the switch to Creative Commons licenses because the GFDL, initially designed for software manuals, is not suitable for online reference works and because the two licenses are currently incompatible.[87]

  20. allgood2

    Mark, its very hard to call something creating “constructive discussion”, when terms like rip-off and shafting are used so emotionally. Additionally, its kind of hard to take serious of a philosophical debate when your ‘facts’ contradict themselves. On one hand you state that the Wikipedia Foundation, will receive $1 euro per book sold; then the next you state that “Wikipedia decides to publish that work, charge 20 Euros a pop and pockets all the money!”

    The facts as I read them are:

    (1) A German publisher having no relationship to the Wikipedia Foundation has decided to publish the most popular articles from Wikipedia;

    (2) They are taking advantage of the GFDL license in which content provided to Wikipedia is covered; and

    (3) They are willing to donate a measly $1 euro to Wikipedia Foundation, in acknowledgement that they they don’t have to do anything but collect and print

    Ironically, your arguments, regardless of how ill stated, would be more relevant if the company selected the least popular articles on the site. Why? Because popular articles tend to be the work of any contributors. Meaning you most individuals, even if they were a major contributor to an article may only be able to find a sentence here or a paragraph there; that they wrote unedited. Whereas, most of the unpopular work goes almost unedited.

    A Wikipedia volunteer is a contributer not an author; so the issues of authorship are not entirely relevant. But even if they did apply, across the board; the fact is despite knowing or not knowing about the GFDL license; individuals have willingly volunteered to contribute their services.

    It’s a bit like volunteering to provide food and clothing for a family on hard times; then demanding your due when they shockingly win the lottery. The family owes you nothing, and its only greed that provides you with certainty that they do. But the issue of ethics that comes up, is one of responsibility, or more specifically social responsibility. For example: If your neighbor gave you a hundred dollars for food, the day you were hungry and broke; but the next day you’re worth $1 million dollars due to unforeseen circumstances. Do you give them back the freely given $100, more, or nothing at all?

    License or no license, a volunteered effort is still volunteered. If you want attribution put it on your blog. Participating in Wikipedia is about increasing knowledge in the public domain.

    allgood2’s last blog post..In Love with Open Source Food

  21. Michael Brutsch

    “All said, I believe Michael could write his comments in a much more polite way.”

    You’re absolutely correct, but I shall leave that as an exercise for the reader.

  22. Peter

    In my opinion, the contributors to the German site (or any other Wiki site) were naive to assume that their work would not be used for profit.

    This reminds me of something straight out of the communist manifesto. The peasant worker-bees do all the hard work to build up the country’s (in this case site’s) infrastructure while the government elites sit around getting rich off of the peasants’ hard work.

    The only difference is that in a communist country, the peasants don’t have the choice of whether they wish to perform slave labor or not. Wikipedia’s contributors did so voluntarily and should have known that at some point, their work would be used for commercial gain.

    Peter’s last blog post..Against all odds, Schools in New Orleans are Fighting Back

  23. Mathias Schindler


    I am Mathias Schindler, a Wikipedian since 2003 and member of the board of Wikimedia Germany e.V., the organisation I helped founding in 2004.

    Since 2005, I was in contact with the encyclopedia division of Bertelsmann (Verlag Wissen Media), the kind of contact that became this project we are now discussing here. It was a lengthy process of learning how both the dead-tree publishing on one hand and the concept of free (as in freedom) licenses on the other hand work.

    Under the GFDL (which has been referenced extensively in this discussion), anyone is free to distribute, copy, modify content under the GFDL as long as certain conditions are met (including attribution of authors, inclusion of the license itself, transparent copy). The GFDL does permit the commercial usage of this content, it does not allow the transformation of content to become non-free. If Bertelsmann modifies the content, the result will still be GFDL licensed and anyone else is allowed to use it, commercially or not.

    In a totally unrelated matter, “Wikipedia” as a registered trademark is not free to be used. If you want to call something Wikipedia, you should get permission from the owner of the trademark.

    If a publisher wants to sell the “Big Book of Knowledge” with GFDL-content from Wikipedia, he can do so. If the same publisher wants to call this book “Concise Wikipedia in one Volume” , a trademark agreement is needed.

    This is not the first time a publisher has used both: the content and the trademark. 2004 following, the Berlin based publishing house Directmedia (https://digitale-bibliothek.de/) has published CD-ROMs and DVDs with Wikipedia content. The CD-ROMs and DVDs were also distributed via P2P networks, people were encouraged to seed the iso images. The DVDs were sold in book stores for 9,90 Euro, one Euro per sold copy was given to Wikimedia.

    These cooperations will never be large enough to keep all of Wikimedia’s projects running, we are largely depending on donations from the public. The money is nevertheless something we appreciate, of course. What’s more imporant is the improvement of the content in Wikipedia. Thanks to the Directmedia project, the German language Wikipedia introduced a feature called “Personendaten” (English project description: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Persondata). The template stored information on biographical articles allowed us to start cooperations with other groups, including the German National Library which maintains an authority file on persons, among other things. By cross-linking their database on people, we can provide the visitors of the German language Wikipedia a pretty convenient access to the list of literature from and about a specific given person (even if the name changed or if there are multiple persons with the same name).

    The idea of a freely licensed encyclopedia definitely includes the freedom of a commercial usage which in most cases directly helps the whole project. Without a very small aspect of commercial usage of the content by third parties, we wouldn’t have that much support in many other clearly non-commercial aspects. Since we are strictly using only freely licensed software to keep Wikipedia running, everyone is free to reproduce the work – for any purpose. And he is invited to contribute to the project, if his idea turns out to be a success 🙂

    We as a project did not obscure that concept, we have been telling this from the start: The content is free to be used, including commercially. On the other hand, Wikimedia tries to keep Wikipedia itself a non-commercial, charitable project, with no ads, no subscription, no “premium services”, no compromises.

    You can reach me via mathias.schindler@wikimedia.de for further information, if I miss the ongoing conversion. I am most certainly interested in hearing your replies in this blog, including suggestions to help Wikimedia build up a sustainable way of funding projects like Wikipedia and its sisters.

    Mathias Schindler’s last blog post..Nando Stöcklin im Schweizer Fernsehen

  24. Brent Hutchison

    Interesting blog, I have been both enlightened and entertained.
    Enlightened as many wise contributers (not authors, note) have given me more of in insight into Wiki’s than being a contributer for over 3 years could ever have provided, thank you all, even poor misguided Mark
    I sympathise with Marks point of view, but can clearly see how he has dug his own hole.
    It is obvious from his comment “SHAFTING THEM” he was quite incensed, and I agree with Michael somewhat that he should stop complaining as his own ignorance and knee jerk recation to being “ripped off” was a little over the top, and makes it hard to justify later claiming “I wished to create a discussion”….
    Discussions do not initiate with accusations of dishonesty in my experience, you came looking for a fight and you found one.

    Although I do think Michael could possibly have been a little kinder to Mark, it does not come accross to me as “aggressive” and think Mark took these comments a little too harshly, again showing his ignorance of online forums and the consequenses of publishing to them.
    You will find ANY forum, blog or wiki site has conditions and rules etc, clearly defined and always made obvious

    Its my experience that if you want to “blog” and make accusations in a blog you should be prepared for a certain amount of critisism and may need to get a thicker skin (aimed at Mark, no offence intended buddy)
    And also for Mark, I see why you feel this way as a “professional writer”, the system in place for the last few centuries where a writer was protected by copywrite laws and anti-plagerism laws regarding the printed word…welcome to the 21st century my freind.
    If you place it on the net, it will be stolen, end of story welcome to the real world
    If you VOLUNTARILY place it on a PUBLIC FREE ENCYCLOPEDIA (sorry if that description offends anyone from wiwki) then what royalties could you possibly expect?
    Although I do sympathise with you, your mistaken and may have to have your intellegent, mature discussions somewhere other than a blog site, such as at ye olde time writers club rooms at Yale, Oxford Cambridge, wherever the fossils gather and smoke thier pipes

    But as for the rest of you, give poor old Mark a break, he had a valid viewpoint he just left himself wide open for some abuse and some people in other blogs (obviously not so well moderated as this one) have really hammered the poor guy when he was only defending his historical turf.
    Shame on those who did, shame on you for making us bloggers look aggressive and nasty and not considering this blokes feelings.(Michael being the exception because I see no aggression there just unwillingness to suffer fools)

  25. Don Bee

    I enjoyed reading the blogs re: Mark/Wikipaedia. I am not up to the intelligence level as you folks contributing these blogs. It does seem to me, however, that just because someone finds a way to capitalise on the efforts of others but that there is no law against those efforts does not make the act reprehensible. An in-the-ballpark comparison might be selling 20 grams of crack cocaine compared to embezzling US$5 millions dollars. The coaine sale will net the convicted seller 10yrs in prison(US); the embezzlement conviction may well net only 5 years in prison (or possibly total parole) if all the criminal’s assets are used to pay back most of the stolen money. Something is wrong here. Meanwhile, you writers who depend upon writing pieces for added/primary income, notice that the world is not to be trusted. (Added blog subject: how per centage of the Myanmar aid do you think the victims of the typhoon will wind up with?) One other thing: the material in Wikipaedia should not be relied upon. Google several resources for the world’ 10 most venomous snakes, the inland taipan, and Clair Patterson. For one thing Mr Patterson traveled the total coastline of the US gathering samples from equa-distant spaces (1 mile or 10, I forget which he told me — I was only 15 years old) to investigate his hypotheseis on the age of the earth. He did not write his doctorial thesis until he had gathered and evaluated all of his information.

  26. Andrew

    Here’s the first line of this “obscure license”:

    “The purpose of this License is to make a manual, textbook, or other functional and useful document “free” in the sense of freedom: to assure everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially.”

    Terribly hard to understand.

    The fact is, anybody can make a book out of the wiki. If you want money from it, go make a book out of it.

  27. Mathias Schindler


    You can make money from it through various means and we certainly encourage you to use the content. Of course, we would prefer if you (or anyone else) did it in the same open fashion we do, for example by releasing software tools under GPL or similar.

    In fact, I would love to see an open sourced effort to automatically produce print encyclopedias from Wikipedia content.

    Mathias Schindler’s last blog post..Nando Stöcklin im Schweizer Fernsehen

  28. Simon Slade

    I thought the whole point of the Wikiedia project was to be non-commercial. I think this runs against the spirit of it!

  29. Esteban

    It seems to me that the main concern here is that Wiki authors could have misunderstood their rights. I’d like to point out that an author who knows his dead-tree rights knows that putting his work out in a public forum automatically gives up his first-serial-rights. And unless you’ve got leverage like Stephen King all reprint rights revert to the publisher, which in this case would be Wikipedia — if they hadn’t expressly given away those rights for free, which they have.

    We need to utterly revamp our laws regarding Intellectual Property. It’s clear that it’s nearly impossible to apply the old laws fairly or sensibly to new media.

  30. Dean

    This is the first I’ve heard of it, but I’m not surprised the least bit that someone is trying to monetize on Wikipedia. I’m shocked it hasn’t happened earlier. Without backreading through all the comments, it seems like Wikipedia can do whatever they want with the content because they’re bound to have wording in there somewhere that says anything submitted becomes Wikipedia’s property.

    I don’t think the book will be a hit considering people use wikipedia so much because it’s really updated.

  31. Simon Slade

    Similar thing is going on with Facebook and German social networking site, StudiVZ. Wonder if the companies are related hehe

    – Simon Slade

  32. Patty@ cakerecipes

    Very interesting article. It’s amazing to see how our justice system is not ready for the internet. Wikipedia and facebook (and the others) bring us questions that we never though about. Can facebook us all the “private” information that people share? Can wikipedia or anyone, use this huge information bank for commercial purposes. Where will it stop? It’s amazing that the first judgement (that i heard of) cam this year to force facebook to let users delete accounts and to actually delete all the info and not only put it to sleep. All of these new realities are great food for though.. i am just amazed how fast thing goes now.. and it’s not going to stop!