Research:A brief history of Wikimedia Commons/Draft 1


Wikimedia Commons is a web site that holds images and other media files for use in Wikipedia sites in any language. The site's design and rules allow uploading only of materials whose copyright status allows free reuse by anyone for any reason. This principle is enforced.

The site launched in 2004 and grew to have a million files in two years. It now holds 31 million items, including images of historical texts for transcription, and documentation in many languages. The Wikimedia Commons thus makes a cultural commons real, practical, and global.

This work describes how this repository began, evolved, offered new services, and grew. Its creators and administrators have debated issues including copyrights, fair use, what can be uploaded, matters of decency, file size, file format, categorization, and the definition and identities of users.

Design / methodology / approach

The main source of information is the primary source: the Commons site is a wiki which keeps past versions of pages, including discussions of its administrative policies and technical decisions back to its beginning. Each of its 243 administrators has a page, and there are pages for each past nomination of a potential administrator and the public support or opposition of other users.[1] We shall interview administrators of the site.

Growth over time
Commons Growth, Michael F. Schönitzer and User:Kopiersperre, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The site is stable and has succeeded at its intended mission. Its contents are mostly photos and include also audio, video, historical texts, and scalable diagrams. Partnerships with cultural institutions have vastly expanded content and kept it organized. Museums, galleries, archives, and libraries upload materials to the Wikimedia Commons. This helps those institutions meet their mission, be visible to a global public, and indexes their materials in a searchable global category system.

The core site is run and developed by professionals at the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. Volunteers do most of the uploads and curation. Photo contests[2] and other special events add content in focused ways. Automated "bots" help manage the overwhelming clerical tasks.

Intellectual property guidelines, mainly, determine which materials are suitable to be stored on the Commons. U.S. law applies generally, but the U.S. "fair use" doctrine does not earn materials a place on Commons because fair use materials are not freely reusable in other jurisdictions. People all over now routinely use materials from Wikimedia Commons in writings and presentations because, as intended, it frees them from worries about copyrights. To this extent, the site has succeeded in helping make real a set of a "free" unobstructed digital cultural materials.

Originality / value for knowledge commons research

We do not know of a simple reliable cite-able history of the Wikimedia Commons, despite its importance. Therefore this work is simple and descriptive, not mainly theoretical. We believe that a timeline and accounting of the past development, issues, and conflicts regarding the Wikimedia Commons will be useful to analysts of online phenomena and to scholars of knowledge commons and intellectual property.

The legal literature on commons refers only rarely to Wikimedia Commons because the relevant scholars do not have clear historical references points. We can make clear what copyright issues it has confronted and help integrate the experiences of the developers of Commons into more legal and analytical literature.

Timeline of Commons




Peter notices: tech problems were solved early and fast, they didn't hang around ; EARLY, e.g. 2005, Wikimedians are directly involved in the CC and GFDL licenses, and requesting big uploads ; the basic story is in place by 2005 so there is no great value in a strictly chronological story and probably better to organize around themes, e.g.: licenses ; contests ; partnerships ; tech standards ; decency standards ; politics ; etc. The years seem pretty interchangeable, within themes ; there doesn't seem to be strong periodization.

Possible outline

  • Intro, definition, launch in 2004
  • Pre-histories up to 2004 (copyright, free software, open source,, Gutenberg, the Mako 8, and Project Sourceberg
  • History 2005-2016 by theme area, ordering uncertain:
  • Tech problems and issues; location and size and capabilities of servers and data centers ; file formats and sizes
  • Copyright issues and other IPR constraints
  • Partnerships
  • Contests
  • Growth by various metrics and models, and perhaps forecasts
  • Administration (administrators, how selected, their policies and criteria for things, mediation, arbitration, banning)
  • Conflicts over copyright, decency
  • Legal or administrative issues other than copyright (?) ; WMF-related complexities? Official administrators or owners? ArbCom cases? Cases where info about Commons users was given to police or other governing authorities?
  • Other such sites? is it a monopoly?
  • Meta-history & Historiography ; periodization and alternatives ; comparisons to other technical histories or cultural institution histories, types and quality of sources ; cite computer histories or public history
  • Social science themes: e.g. Ostrom commons, knowledge commons, open source theory, tinkerers, incentive structures, professionalization, natural monopolies
  • Conclusions and perhaps forecasts

Other sources

Free culture
Presentation materials
Wikimedia sources
To interview
  • Interview Eric Möller. Likely questions: (1) the 2004 announcement email all came true, suggesting a lot of earlier conversation → what's that prehistory? (2) How much was worked out iteratively? (3) was money a challenge? (4) who else should we interview about it?
  • interview JarekT, who is local to Peter
  • interview newyorkbrad – which deletion and copyright decisions and advocacy positions make sense, and which don't?
Various important projects (incomplete)


  1. c:Commons:Administrators
  2. Follow up WLM sources below


  • Elinor Ostrom (and Charlotte Hess): Governing Knowledge Commons I.
  • Madison; Frischmann ; Strandburg: Governing Knowledge Commons II.
  • Mako's paper on earlier sites
  • Definition of Free Cultural Works on en.wp
  • Coriat, Benjamin. 2013. From National-Resource Commons to Knowledge Commons: Common Traits and Differences. Presented at PROPICE conference, April 2013. Available from Coriat (2013) says a knowledge commons has property rights and hierarchical powers. Knowledge commons are intangible, unlike natural resource commons. Examples of informational/intangible/knowledge commons: digital databases; collections of scientific or technological works; digital libraries; literary works; online encyclopedias, etc. Author acknowledges that MFS (2008) confronted the same issues and called there "cultural commons". (p1 fnote 1) Abstractly on commons: (1) commons result from attributes of goods or systems of resources ; (2) commons are characterized by original property regimes; (3) commons have suitable structures of governance to sustain them. (pp 2-10) Ostrom-characterized CPRs (common pool resources) are highly subtractible in use, and high difficulty of excluding potential beneficiaries. Examples: forests, fisheries, grazing land. (p2) (more notes on private wiki, and other sources)
  • Books about Wikipedia on en.wp
  • Bibliography of Wikipedia on en.wp