What we learned from 30 Wikimedians who have advocated copyright reform

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Demonstration by Berlin associations against Article 13 and other contents of the planned EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. Image by Leonhard Lenz, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

If there’s one public policy topic that Wikimedians are especially passionate about, it’s copyright. Wikimedians are deeply involved in copyright matters on a daily basis: from helping cultural and educational institutions increase access to their resources, to photographing cultural heritage monuments (and fighting for the right to do so), to addressing cutting-edge questions around generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) and copyright. That’s because copyright laws build the legal framework that determines who can access what content.

In this sense, copyright law can build cages around sources of information. If the Wikimedia community is committed to advancing free access to reliable information, then they can attempt to create doors inside some of those cages, or even knock those bars and walls down. More often than not, Wikimedians are helping with the whole “knocking them down” approach, since open and flexible copyright—however important for the public interest—is not guaranteed. Around the world, the absence of balanced copyright policies, where the interests of authors and the public have equal weight, creates structural inequalities and inequities in who can access what content. 

Wikimedians have been advocating copyright legislation that supports free knowledge projects since the beginning. Wishing to strengthen their efforts, the Wikimedia Foundation’s Global Advocacy team launched a mapping project in March 2023 to collect the public policy advocacy initiatives that Wikimedians have pursued in order to preserve or change copyright policies. We just finished doing so. This blog post summarizes the project’s methods, key findings, and recommendations. 

How we conducted the mapping and created a repository of Wikimedians’ advocacy materials

The goal of the mapping exercise was to learn what public policy advocacy initiatives around copyright reform affiliates pursued, Wikimedians’ motivations to do so, the capacity and resources they invested in this work, their strategies and tactics for engaging in advocacy, and what common challenges and successes they experienced. Our research focused on Wikimedians—user groups, chapters, and relevant individuals—who have worked on copyright public policy advocacy initiatives since 2016. We interviewed 30 individuals from March to July 2023. 

For the purposes of this mapping project, we defined copyright public policy advocacy as “actions intended to defend and/or promote copyright public policies developed by governments” (as opposed to those set by educational or cultural institutions like galleries, archives, or museums). 

Facilitating the sharing of resources was a core objective of this project. We compiled all the resources participants created as part of their advocacy efforts, including campaign materials and step-by-step summaries of their actions. These materials are centralized into a sortable table on the Global Advocacy team’s Meta-Wiki webpage

The table contains: policy position papers; campaign infographics and social media messaging; speeches to parliaments, open letters, campaign reports, examples of media coverage; and much more. You can sort it by: the region from where the materials originate; their language; their topic within copyright public policy; and, the year they were published. This is not an exhaustive resource. We hope it will inspire, support, build connections, and create synergies among copyright advocacy efforts across the Wikimedia communities.

Explaining our findings

By reflecting on the interviews that we carried out and studying the materials that we collected, we gained valuable understanding about the topics, tactics, success and challenges that Wikimedia communities and individuals have experienced when advocating copyright reform. We report our findings below. 

What copyright topics do Wikimedians engage with and why? Wikimedians tend to engage in copyright advocacy when:

  • Existing legislation impedes their participation in Wikimedia projects or campaigns; 
  • An opportunity for copyright reform arises at the national or regional level; or,
  • Their commitment to free knowledge is challenged by local copyright regimes.

Copyright topics of interest are those that serve Wikimedians’ objective to simplify access to content and its free use, such as: fair use and/or fair dealing and research exceptions; expanding the public domain; orphan works; and, public broadcasting.

What tactics do Wikimedians use to engage in copyright advocacy? Wikimedians pursue a range of tactics, which mostly focus on awareness raising, direct engagement with policymakers when possible, and working through coalitions. 

What success do Wikimedians see in relation to their copyright advocacy efforts? Wikimedians mentioned several examples of successful copyright advocacy initiatives. These include campaigns in Australia (2017, #FairCopyrightOz), Colombia (2017–2018, Colombian copyright reform), and across the European Union (2017-2019, Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market). Success factors are context-dependent and multiple. Successful moments often involve a combination of the following factors:

  • Working with diverse and unlikely allies, since collaborations and coalitions can be very useful, even when they include unlikely allies or organizations whose overlapping interests with the Wikimedia communities aren’t obvious. Benefits include: access to information on how both sides of an issue understand a legislation; broader network of contacts to target and turn into champions; and, media coverage.
  • The reputation and reach of Wikimedia projects can help to boost the visibility of a given cause or coalition, even if the Wikimedians spearheading the advocacy work are not very experienced or well-known in policy circles. 
  • Timing has to be right for copyright reform to be discussed. Ideally, copyright reform should be on the political agenda already or a catalyst event has placed the topic on the agenda.
  • Legal action can play a role in shaping the context and political agenda in a way that is favorable to advocating for copyright reform. In the movement, this often involves a lawsuit against an ally of the Wikimedia projects over a copyright-related topic, which then gains media attention and leads to coverage  that can place the topic on the political agenda.
  • Collaborating with legal and public policy professionals when pursuing advocacy campaigns. Wikimedians’ initiatives have been successful when they can consistently work with the same expert to help analyze legislation, identify risks and opportunities, and prepare or review official responses, public comments, and amendments to proposed bills.
  • Explicit commitment to public policy advocacy by means of staff and annual plans. Wikimedians who officially prioritize public policy advocacy have more capacity to monitor policy developments early on as well as identify the right moment and means by which to engage. They are also more likely to have capacity to engage, or to ask for support, early enough. 
  • Checking the Wiki-boxes, that is, securing a mandate from the community, and writing and updating a Wikipedia article about the copyright-related topic and/or public policy in question.

What challenges do Wikimedians face in their advocacy efforts? Resource constraints related to time, money, and personnel are the greatest barriers. These influence other core challenges, such as: access to legal expertise; the ability to monitor and prioritize policy developments; creating compelling arguments and countering oppositional narratives; and, group and individual burnout.

Next steps that you can take

This mapping project may be finished, but our work advocating free and open copyright continues. We want these findings to inform how we collectively carry out public policy advocacy to ensure copyright regimes that benefit free and open knowledge. Let’s keep the conversation going! Here are some ways to get involved:

  1. Share your ideas on our Talk page;
  2. Join our Let’s Connect! workshops on copyright advocacy; 
  3. Sign up to the public policy mailing list to learn what else the Foundation and Wikimedia communities are working on.  

A huge thank you to everyone who shared their time with us in order to participate in this project! 

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