One of the traditional justifications for copyright law is that it incentivizes inventors to create. Recently one MIT economist, Abhishek Nagaraj, studied how the copyright law regime affects Wikipedia and how resources like Wikipedia affect our collective body of knowledge. The issues go back to Google starting to digitize magazines in 2008. (You may be familiar with the pending Google Book litigation.) One of the magazines Google digitized was Baseball Digest, which was the oldest and longest-running (1945-2008) baseball related journals and included images of the players.  Wikipedia writers found the wealth of information supplied by Google and used it to improve Wikipedia’s baseball articles. The study found that the articles focused on baseball players in the years between 1944 and 1984 increased by approximately 5200 words.

Under copyright law, the images in the magazines from before 1964 were in the public domain, so Wikipedia could only use those images on the website. Nagaraj used the break to form two groups for his study: a control group of the baseball players from 1964-84 and a test group of the baseball players from 1944-1964. Nagaraj compared the two groups to see the difference in length, number of images, and traffic. The length of the articles was not affected by the change in copyright law. However, copyright law directly affected the amount of photos on the page. Articles with pictures available in the public domain had more than twice as many photos on average as articles requiring protected photos.

According to the study, more pictures led to more traffic on the pages. The most popular articles from before 1964 increased hits by 70%, and the least popular articles saw hits increase by 25%. Furthermore, those articles were edited more frequently because Google rewards updated content and more images. The study controlled for many factors like longevity of players’ careers or being left handed. What the study found was that while copyrights do not affect the amount of information in the public domain (length of articles), copyrights affect how the public uses information once it is there because of the way search rewards articles with digital public domain photos. The results of Nagaraj’s study are the beginning of how we study the way copyright law affects one communities knowledge and access to information. Do you think this is a problem? If so, do you think it should be remedied through legal means or through new searching algorithms, or do you have another suggestion?

–Samara C. Pals Cramer

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One Response to Copyright law and Wikipedia

  1. Kendall Short says:

    I’m not sure that a legal remedy would be appropriate in this situation. Rather, I think it might be more helpful to change the search algorithm so that it focuses less on the amount of pictures and more on the other features of the website, such as length or some other measure of content of the article. If the pages contain the same type of information in the same length, then they should be treated the same so that those doing research on the topic will not simply be drawn because of the pretty pictures. While I think it is useful to have more material in the public domain since that increases everyone’s access to information, I also recognize that there is a need to protect more recent material whose author’s may yet still be alive to benefit from their work. Those authors should not be punished by Google or the other search engines simply for not putting their work in the public domain for others to use freely.

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