Wikipedia targets Australians in bid to change the law

If Wikipedia was hosted in Australia, it would be breaking the law.

In an Australian first, the US-based crowd-sourced encyclopedia will launch on Monday a political campaign to change the Australian law, by displaying messages targeting Australians who visit pages it was able to create using a US provision known as “fair use”.

The case for copyright reform

Peter Martin explains why Australia’s copyright laws are putting it at a competitive disadvantage.

The banner advertisements will say that Wikipedia was only able to create the pages because of a provision denied to Australians.

“Six Australian government reports since 1998 have recommended Australia adopt fair use,” the message reads. “The government is currently considering its response to the latest recommendation. If you think Australia should adopt fair use, take action.”

Fair use would allow extracts of copyrighted work to be displayed without permission in certain circumstances where it didn’t harm the market for the original.

“When you look up the ABC on Wikipedia and see its logo, that logo is there because a Wikipedia editor has uploaded it as a fair use of the image,” said Jon Lawrence, executive director of Electronic Frontiers Australia, which is partnering with Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia users can can only upload this content because they are able to rely on the US’s fair use provisions. If Wikipedia was based in Australia, you wouldn’t see that logo.”

Cabinet is considering a recommendation from the Productivity Commission to extend the US right of fair use to Australia, allowing local websites and teachers and authors to quote fair use material and allowing libraries to display thumbnail pictures of book covers in their catalogues.

The Copyright Agency, which collects payments on behalf of authors, has amassed a $15 million fund to fight the change.

“Wikipedia pages display thumbnail images of album covers,” said Katherine Mahr, head of the San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation. “It is conceivable that, if an Australian teacher wanted to display those pages, she would be subject to a licensing fee, even though we are able to display them.

“Australians run into conflict with the law without realising it. Forwarding an email or including the text of an email in a reply can break the law. Our Australian users have told us they want us to campaign for fair use because they support our mission to ensure every person in the world has access to knowledge.”

Jessica Coates of the Australian Digital Alliance, which represents librarians and is also partnering with Wikipedia, said fair use would future-proof the law so it didn’t need to be updated each time technology changed.

“It took until 2006 to legalise taping a TV show on a video cassette recorder in Australia, by which time most VCRs were already mothballed,” she said. “We need copyright law that focuses not on specific technologies but on what is fair.”

Ms Mahr said Wikipedia’s contributors and editors respected copyright.

“I have never met a group of people who care more about the rights of creators,” she said. “You won’t find lyrics on Wikipedia, for instance, because we believe the rights of creators should be protected. But you will find references to copyrighted work, references that are forbidden by Australian law.”

The rotating banner messages will be shown to about half the Australian visitors to Wikipedia for several days, shrinking to 15 per cent for the next few weeks.