Freebase, Wikipedia and the right to fork

Screenshot of Freebase personal type definition, 'free content collection'

Two nights ago I went to the first Freebase user meeting outside the US. (You can tell I’m setting myself up for a, “I was there when…”)

It was organised by Kirrily Robert, who’s taken enough with her “new crack habit” to set up a specialised blog just for it.

So, what is Freebase? It claims to be a “database of everything”. There are several points of comparison with Wikipedia. Where Wikipedia is an “encyclopedia”, Freebase wants to be “everything”. It is far more structured than Wikipedia (which anyone who’s ever wrangled with an esoteric template might appreciate). Like Wikipedia, it’s a free content project: data derived from Wikipedia is GFDL (natch) and everything else is CC-BY. They have a very excellent and well-documented API — they’re not afraid to share. Bring on the mash-ups!

There are several more differences worth discussing. Currently, Freebase is alpha and invitation-only for write permission (ie an account). No worries, give it time.

More importantly, the back-end. Freebase is built on Metaweb’s closed-source back-end that is going to remain that way. Apparently they intend to release some kind of regular data dump, and even allegedly would have no problem with someone taking that entire data set and throwing it into MySQL or what-have-you and setting up a total project fork.

If it was free software, there would be a right to fork. But this is only free content. Is there any kind of corresponding “right to fork” for a free content community? Should there be?

If not, maybe this joke from Evan about “crowdsourcing” is just a truth:

The other reason that I would wait until I had an entire data dump downloaded on my own disk before really barracking for Freebase is because I read their TOS:

5. API USE

We provide access to portions of the Site and Service through an API; for purposes of this Terms of Service, such access constitutes use of the Site and Service. You agree only to use the API as outlined in documentation provided by us on the Site. You may not use the API or any other features of the Site or Service to duplicate or copy the Site or Service.

Bummer. Although — here’s a thought — I wonder if that conflicts with the CC-BY?

(clause 8.e from CC-BY-3.0)

This License constitutes the entire agreement between the parties with respect to the Work licensed here. There are no understandings, agreements or representations with respect to the Work not specified here. Licensor shall not be bound by any additional provisions that may appear in any communication from You. This License may not be modified without the mutual written agreement of the Licensor and You.

It’s not quite viral freedom, but almost as good. It seems to me this nice clause would render their TOS impotent.

So, interesting to see what will happen there. It’s Wiki[p|m]edia that convinced me (and taught me) about the absolutely vital right to fork. That is an incredible freedom which is vastly underappreciated by the journalists who are generally impressed with Wikipedia’s “freeness” (meaning no ads, or free access). And as a project leader, any kind of project, that is what keeps you on your toes. Maybe it is a good benchmark for deciding if you want to be a contributor to a particular project. If management gets too heavy, you can keep them in line by threatening to exercise your right to fork. Yeah!

Back to Freebase… another related, interesting aspect will be watching the development of their community and how it will be managed. Where Wikipedia was pretty grass-roots, it seems like Freebase is top-heavy, for the moment at least. Letting go, giving up control and trusting the unwashed masses is a very difficult psychological moment for anyone (who’s not a Wikimedian). Trying to get those same unwashed masses to behave themselves is a whole other kettle of fish. When I first contemplated this for Freebase two night s ago I was filled with cynicism, until I remembered… The thing about Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.

I should make that my mantra. Every time I get cynical about something, think about that idea again. It only works in practice.

11 October, 2007 • , , , , ,

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