Monday, 25 June 2007

Election process

I feel dirty saying this, but: process is sometimes important, at least when it comes to elections to the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation.

With all due respect to the members of the Board Election Steering Committee, the process for this year's elections leaves much to be desired. It is likely that many of the problems are a consequence of the committee only being put in place at the beginning of the last week of May, just over a fortnight before the election process was due to commence.

The most glaring issue is that major decisions about how the election will be conducted are still being made even after the process has started. For example, at the time of writing, the nomination and endorsement periods have closed, and voting will commence in two and a half days, yet neither the external third-party who will be conducting the election nor the software to be used for voting have been identified yet (or if they have, there has been no public announcement). While it is pleasing that the election will be conducted externally, and will not use an on-wiki method for voting, it is worrying that these fundamental issues have not been worked out in advance.

My other concerns are structural issues with the way that the elections have been organised.

While it's entirely appropriate to have participation requirements for voters (so that the franchise is extended only to those who have some stake in the Wikimedia community) it baffles me why we have participation requirements for candidates, particularly given the requirement (introduced this year) that candidates need a certain number of endorsements from members of the community eligible to vote in order to proceed to the voting phase.

An endorsement system (with appropriate parameters) should work fine in eliminating candidates unsuitable for whatever reason from being involved in the important voting phase, but having additional participation requirements can only serve to restrict the pool of candidates. There are all sorts of people out there who might be great to have on the Board of Trustees, such as people with experience in other non-profit organisations, people involved in other free content projects and so forth.

There are other, smaller problems with the current endorsement system.

Firstly, the just-closed nomination period ran concurrently with the period for endorsements. Several people observed on the Foundation mailing list that this effectively brings forward the closure of the nomination period, and it does so by an unspecified amount, since people would have to guess how long they would need to attract the requisite endorsements. effe iets anders suggested that it should be entirely possible for prospective candidates to line up their endorsements before nominating (and this also seems to be the conclusion that the Steering Committee reached, judging by this comment), and it should, but this for me raises a question about the objective of endorsements in the first place, which is supposedly for the community to assess whether candidates are worthy of serious consideration or not. I would rather have candidates putting their efforts into preparing their platforms, writing statements and answering questions, rather than shilling for endorsements.

Secondly, while the required number of endorsements was twelve, endorsement pages were not closed at this point, and endorsements continued to be listed, resulting in some candidates gathering very large numbers of endorsements. Some users expressed concerns that this was effectively a second voting period, distracting from the real vote ("a public one and a private one", as Walter Vermeir put it). It also runs the risk of making candidates who nominate early appear to have more support than candidates who enter later in the nomination period. If the objective of endorsements is only to eliminate the unsuitable candidates, then I would think it sensible that endorsements for a candidate be closed once the required number is reached. It may be preferable to have endorsers send their endorsements directly to the Steering Committee, perhaps by email or perhaps by an on-wiki interface, so as to prevent the perception of a popularity contest.

It seems to me that many of these issues could have been avoided had the Steering Committee been formed with adequate time to prepare for the election, and given that we are now more or less on a fixed cycle of elections (with certain positions up for election every two years) there is ample opportunity for planning to occur. I also feel that, given that some of the problems I have mentioned have been identified by other people also, that the Steering Committee could have opened up some of their decision-making processes to community input. Again, this was probably prevented by the short time that they had in which to work.

I would suggest that a timetable be laid down in the near future for the June 2008 elections, and that discussion on next year's format be opened now so that there is opportunity to comment while the issues around the present election are fresh in people's minds.

Now it's time for a wash.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Why there cannot be a generic template for fair use claims

Fair use is a legal doctrine that may be used as a defence against a claim of copyright infringement. Technically speaking, until you've actually been to court and successfully invoked your claim of fair use to defend against such a suit, you're using the work illegally. In practice it's often possible to reasonably anticipate where a claim of fair use will be successful, typically by analogy with cases in which the defence has been successfully raised, and as such, the use is commonly regarded as "kosher", as it were, while still technically being illegal.

This reality raises a couple of issues. Since fair use is a defence, it's necessary to be able to explain on what basis your use falls within that defence. Since the defence applies only to particular uses of a work, you need to be able to make such an explanation for all of your uses of the work. And since claims fall into the "kosher" category by being based on solid analogies with existing cases in which the defence has been successfully raised, you need to explain the analogy you have employed, by reference to the specific fair use factors that apply to the particular work and the particular use in question.

There is no boilerplate fair use claim to be used against copyright infringement, just as there is no boilerplate claim for, say, self-defense in a murder trial, or for an estoppel claim in a breach of contract suit. Fair use claims may be very similar to each other, but that only reflects that the particular analogy being employed is strong (or at least popularly thought to be strong).

Executive summary: since fair use is a legal defence, you need to explain how it applies in every case, and this means there can be no boilerplate claims.

Friday, 1 June 2007

The fullness of time

The current debate about the application of the biographies of living persons seems focused solely on the question of whether or not Wikipedia should have an article about a person at all, and there have been only a few rare attempts to frame the debate in more nuanced terms than this binary approach. One of the key questions we should be asking, in addition to the question of whether to present information at all, is the question of how that information ought to be presented.

Much as I take a mergist stance in the inclusion/deletion debate more broadly, I think a similar stance is most preferable in this current manifestation of that debate. The fundamental reason is the same: content must be presented in the most appropriate context. The right context allows the proper significance of information to be conveyed, and presents it in a naturally coherent fashion, which is exceptionally valuable for an encyclopaedia.

In the case of biographies of living persons, the question is then whether or not certain information is best presented in a biographical article, whether such an article provides the most appropriate context for the content.

One key issue to consider is the temporal focus of an article.

Articles about an event concentrate on the short-term, are generally tied to one or several discrete points in time and have a narrower scope; even though they sometimes discuss larger issues, they do so through the prism of individual situations. In contrast, biographical articles are focused on the long-term, with scope extending to the entire lifetime of a person.

When we decide where to include material that relates to a person's involvement in an event, we ought to consider the proper temporal focus of the sources for that material. Sources with a short-term focus, that discuss a person in order to discuss a particular event, should be used to develop articles about the event, and not biographical articles about the person. On the other hand sources with a long-term focus, that discuss a person, often by way of discussing a series of events, should be used to develop biographical articles.

Many of the biographical articles that have been causing problems lately are drawn largely from news sources. News coverage, generally speaking, is almost always concentrating on the here and now; if it writes about people, it is usually writing about them only insofar as they are part of a particular event, that is, only insofar as their lives intersect with this discrete point or points of time. This is the same even for "human interest" type pieces that seem to be about people: really they have the same short-term focus, the journos are just looking for a different angle to help sell the story.

Choosing to put content in a biographical article becomes increasingly appropriate the more that the content is drawn from sources with a long-term focus. Where the only sources available are short-term, event-focused sources like news coverage, then it must be questioned whether the content should be presented as a biographical article, and in most cases (especially where the news sources are all about one event) it probably should not.

Lastly, in all of this we must not forget Wikinews, a project which is intended precisely for the type of coverage which is not always proper for inclusion in an encyclopaedia: news coverage, with a narrow, short-term focus on its subjects. Wikinews is surely a far more appropriate venue for many of these types of articles, since fundamentally it concentrates on knowledge that is important at a particular point in time.

The exhortation that "we have a really serious responsibility to get things right" in the context of biographies of living persons applies not only to what content we present, but also the manner in which we present that content. We must ask ourselves, what is the most appropriate context for this information? Is it really the most desirable choice to present this information in a biographical article? Whenever the answer is no, then look to other articles instead, where context may be better established, or else look further afield, to projects like Wikinews.

Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia, not a newspaper. Its content must be developed with this difference in temporal focus in mind.