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Our tag wikis are best when they have informative descriptions and excerpts.

However, we have a low-grade but ongoing problem with copyrighted material being copied and pasted into our tag wikis. Often these are suggested edits, yet the problem isn't being caught in the review queues.

The short version

  • Don't just copy text into our tag wikis from elsewhere. It's almost never legal to so, even OGL or Wikipedia text. (It's possible to cite OGL or Wikipedia text legally, but it's very difficult to do it correctly. If in doubt, just don't.)

  • When in the Suggested Edits review queue, check unusually nice suggested edits in a search engine to see if they were copied, and reject them if so. Be a bit more suspicious, a bit more alert for the natural human tendency to be “helpful” by taking the path of least resistance and just copying text from elsewhere.


The long version

I just rejected two suggested edits to a tag's wiki, and rolled back four other tag wiki edits that had passed the suggested edit review queue. The first two used unattributed OGL text and the others used unattributed text from wikis.

Not naming any names because this stuff is legitimately not obvious, and no harm was done anyway in this case. It's a trend that's been developing over a long time, and these were just the most recent examples that tipped me toward addressing it explicitly. Things are pretty good actually — but we can always do better and better is awesome.

OGL material and wikis (like Wikipedia) are copyrighted

It's counterintuitive, I know, but both OGLed text and Wikipedia text are copyrighted works. The only way anyone is allowed to copy and reuse their text is by following their respective licenses. They cannot be freely copied from the way that has been happening in our tag wikis.

The problem is that both of them require specific types of attribution in order for their reuse to be legal, because their licenses say so, but the design of tag wikis makes proper attribution difficult or even impossible to include.

Our tag excerpts are just plain too small to contain attribution. It's impossible to use open-licensed material that requires attribution in our tag wiki excerpts. New tag wiki excerpts must always be original writing from the person making the edit.

This is a bit more complicated in our tag wiki descriptions themselves, because there we do have a bit more room.

Wikipedia and other wikis

Attribution for Wikipedia articles is small enough to include in the full tag wiki description, so it's technically possible to reuse the Wikipedia text in our tag wiki descriptions. If attribution is included, Wikipedia text may be reused in our tag wiki descriptions.

To use Wikipedia text, refer to their citation guidelines available by clicking “Cite this page” in the sidebar of a given article. The guidance page looks like this. If figuring out how to write the attribution from the information on that page seems intimidating and confusing, that's a good sign that one isn't equipped to reuse text from Wikipedia on a public site like RPG.se.

(You might see now why I rolled back those edits instead of attempting to add correct attribution, despite having a lot of experience writing Creative Commons license attributions. ;)

Tag excerpts still need to be freshly-written, original text when using Wikipedia text in the larger tag wiki description.

All this goes for wikis other than Wikipedia too, except they usually don't have even a confusing page about how to cite.

Open Game License material

The Open Game License (OGL) also allows reuse of text, but to do so requires including a verbatim copy of the entire license along with the text, as well requiring specific edits to be made to the included copy of the license.

We obviously can't put a copy of the entire OGL in the tag wiki excerpts. We could, in theory, past a copy of the 1,000-word OGL into each and every tag wiki description that uses OGLed text and update it in the way that it requires, but that's ridiculous — it's easier and saner to avoid copying and just write in our own words.

And even if we did, the tag wiki excerpts still wouldn't be covered by the license, because they routinely appear elsewhere on the site alone and the OGL doesn't allow that.

The exceptions

There are very few exceptions that work with the constraints of our tag wikis.

  1. There are licenses which don't require attribution; these are rarely used for text though, and I've never personally seen RPG descriptions or reviews released under such a license.

  2. Some people release their text into the Public Domain, which means it can be reused with no attribution at all, and for any purpose. In practice, this is even rarer.

In general, if text appears elsewhere on the internet that matches one of our tag wikis, it has been improperly added to our tag wikis.

What to do

  • When submitting a tag wiki edit, either avoid copying text, or commit to learning how to write correct license attributions.

  • When reviewing suggested tag wiki edits, test any unusually well-written text by plugging a sentence or two of it into a search engine. See if an SRD or Wikipedia or another (normal, non-open copyright) site comes up. If so, reject the edit as harmful, with a note that Wikipedia/OGL/copyrighted text cannot be used without a license.

    Alternatively, if you're feeling flush with time and know what you're doing, click Improve Edit and add an attribution to the appropriate part of the tag wiki description, according to the text's license.

But… Fair Use / Fair Dealing?!

It's often unclear whether a case of text copying would be protected by fair use/dealing doctrine. There are arguments that could be made for and against tag wikis being covered by the doctrine. Copying that isn't a 100% crystal-clear case of fair use/dealing is best considered not, and avoided.

Since we have no need to copy text for our tag wikis, it's both unnecessary to tread in grey areas of fair use/dealing, and that lack of need may actually be a strong indication that it's not a protected form of copying anyway.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The most universally convincing argument I've heard for not pasting into tag wikis is simply that tag wikis have a pretty specific purpose (clarifying the sort of question they should be attached to), and it's next to impossible that any text from another source will be written with that purpose in mind. We could debate legal exceptions until the Sun burns out, but copy-pasting outside material into tag wikis simply makes for bad tag wikis--legal or not. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW May 23 '16 at 10:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BESW Aren't many of the site's tags just descriptions of games? (Meaning that, for example, the site's not providing free means to play those games.) And wouldn't most games' publishers likely prefer the site use their descriptions of their games rather than a description some random dude just whipped up? (This just seems like an oddly specific mandate, like focusing on a book's glossary instead of on the book itself.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 23 '16 at 15:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan BESW point is a very good one even for game descriptions. Text tuned to be effective advertising copy will often be poorly tuned for being effective tag-use guidance. For a degenerate example: 1st-party game descriptions for the various C/WoD games and core editions stuffed into the tag wikis would cause chaos in our tagging. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 23 '16 at 17:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BESW That comment would make an excellent response/complement to the OP, even without expanding it. I feel silly I hadn't thought of it earlier, since I've made the same practical argument on a similar topic. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 23 '16 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's fair. I can see different editions' tags suffering under vague effusive ad copy. I wish the mandate had been phrased that way, however. As is, it sounds like admonishment (You're doing the sites' tags wrong!) instead of encouragement (Let's make the sites' tags easier to use!). \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 23 '16 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan That's a fair point. I think there's room for a separate “Hey let's make things more awesome” meta around tag wikis though. Copying in our tag wikis is a specific problem that needs addressing, so I feel like a meta focused laser-like on asking people to cut that out is merited. Unfortunately, copying text into wikis (in general, not just our tag wikis) is rampant in user-editable online communities due to a widespread erroneous belief that any text that appears on the Internet is free for the taking. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 23 '16 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Tags which are simply descriptions of their subject, rather than guides to the tag's use, should be considered placeholders to be improved--not examples to be followed. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW May 23 '16 at 23:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @gatherer818 Our answers tend to have citations and links. Meanwhile, tag excerpts can't, and appear on parts of the site separately from the full description. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 26 '16 at 4:46
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The most universally convincing argument I've heard for not pasting into tag wikis is simply that tag wikis have a pretty specific purpose (clarifying the sort of question they should be attached to), and it's next to impossible that any text from another source will be written with that purpose in mind. We could debate legal exceptions until the Sun burns out, but copy-pasting outside material into tag wikis simply makes for bad tag wikis--legal or not.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've found very limited quotes to be of use sometimes, but then it's easy enough to demarcate and cite, and I'm writing things around the quote. Wikipedia also very often has pithy descriptions I can draw on phrase for tag wiki summaries, but it does take writing the summary myself to do it well - Wikipedia authors just picked out some perfect words to reuse. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener May 24 '16 at 22:13
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With respect, this does not deal with legitimate use of copyrighted material under the fair use (17 U.S. Code § 107) or fair dealing (Commonwealth) doctrines which, given we are an English language site, pretty much covers the field. Under these doctrines, copyright material may be used if it meets the respective criteria. Both Wikipedia and the OGL as US works fall under the fair use doctrine which is the more permissive of the two.

The Supreme Court has held that fair use is an affirmative defence to copyright violation (Lenz v Universal Music Corp); the Ninth Circuit has gone further finding that fair use is expressly authorized right.

For fair use to apply the court will use a four factor balancing test:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

For use in a tag wiki:

  1. this is clearly a non-profit educational use;
  2. the work is a product produced for profit which argues against fair use;
  3. the amount quoted must necessarily be small in relation to the work as a whole;
  4. there is likely to be an insignificant effect (perhaps even a positive one) on the market for the work.

While this is only my opinion, I find it difficult to envisage a circumstance where use of copyrighted material on a tag wiki (or even in a Q or A) would not be fair use. I would even go further and opine that use would be fair dealing as well.

I am not advocating that this site should defend its rights to use the work if challenged; that would be both time and cost prohibitive. However, unless and until we receive a DCMA takedown notice (please inform us if this has happened) to outright ban this is needlessly draconian.

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    \$\begingroup\$ More generally, text copied just to populate a technical feature of our site is not a clear case of fair use/dealing, and could easily be on the wrong side of the fuzzy line. Might be fair use/dealing = a bad idea to even try, especially since the network consensus is that it is not. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 23 '16 at 2:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I do not really have a problem with a policy on this and certainly avoiding an area that is, by its nature, legally ambiguous may be a good one. I do have a problem with the position that it is prima facie illegal when it isn't. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M May 23 '16 at 2:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie An edit to the question showing that fair use had been considered and explicitly rejected for policy reasons would sooth my pedantic soul. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M May 23 '16 at 2:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's close enough for a post that is basically “Hey! Stop doing that thing that we don't want you doing!” Splitting hairs and investigating their exact width wouldn't be practically useful; would probably muddy things unnecessarily. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 23 '16 at 3:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevensidedDie I have made an edit that will keep pedants like me satisfied. I don't think it confuses anything. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M May 23 '16 at 5:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ One issue this would cause is that using the OGL in a product locks you into using the OGL, even if you could get away with fair use in some places. If some OGL-licensed material is put on the site under fair use, while other parts of the site start using the OGL and citing things, the previously legal use of text copied under fair use is suddenly voided by the requirement of the whole product (in this case, the site should probably be seen as a single product) to adhere to the OGL. I'd recommend not allowing fair use of OGL text to avoid possible licensing conflicts further down the line. \$\endgroup\$ – Matt Thomason Jun 2 '16 at 12:10

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