The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource
by Richard Stallman
The World Wide Web has the potential to develop into a universal encyclopedia covering all areas of knowledge, and a complete library of instructional courses. This outcome could happen without any special effort, if no one interferes. But corporations are mobilizing now to direct the future down a different track—one in which they control and restrict access to learning materials, so as to extract money from people who want to learn.
To ensure that the web develops toward the best and most natural outcome, where it becomes a free encyclopedia, we must make a conscious effort to prevent deliberate sequestration of the encyclopedic and educational information on the net. We cannot stop business from restricting the information it makes available; what we can do is provide an alternative. We need to launch a movement to develop a universal free encyclopedia, much as the Free Software movement gave us the free software operating system GNU/Linux. The free encyclopedia will provide an alternative to the restricted ones that media corporations will write.
The rest of this article aims to lay out what the free encyclopedia needs to do, what sort of freedoms it needs to give the public, and how we can get started on developing it.
An encyclopedia located everywhere.
In the past, encyclopedias have been written under the direction of a single organization, which made all decisions about the content, and have been published in a centralized fashion. It would not make sense to develop and publish the free encyclopedia in those ways—they fit poorly with the nature of the World Wide Web and with the resources available for writing the encyclopedia.
The free encyclopedia will not be published in any one place. It will consist of all web pages that cover suitable topics, and have been made suitably available. These pages will be developed in a decentralized manner by thousands of contributors, each independently writing articles and posting them on various web servers. No one organization will be in charge, because such centralization would be incompatible with decentralized progress.
Who will write the encyclopedia?
In principle, anyone is welcome to write articles for the encyclopedia. But as we reach out for people to help, the most promising places to look are among teachers and students. Teachers generally like to teach, and writing an article a year for the encyclopedia would be an enjoyable change from their classroom duties. For students, a major school paper could become an encyclopedia article, if done especially well.
Small steps will do the job.
When a project is exciting, it is easy to imagine a big contribution that you would like to make, bite off more than you can chew, and ultimately give up with nothing to show for it.
So it is important to welcome and encourage smaller contributions. Writing a textbook for a whole semester's material is a big job, and only a small fraction of teachers will contribute that much. But writing about a topic small enough for one meeting of a class is a contribution that many can afford to make. Enough of these small contributions can cover the whole range of knowledge.
Take the long view.
The encyclopedia is a big job, and it won't be finished in a year. If it takes twenty years to complete the free encyclopedia, that will be but an instant in the history of literature and civilization.
In projects like this, progress is slow for the first few years; then it accelerates as the work that has been done attracts more and more people to join in. Eventually there is an avalanche of progress. So we should not feel discouraged when the first few years do not bring us close to completion. It makes sense to choose the first steps to illustrate what can be done, and to spread interest in the long-term goal, so as to inspire others to join in.
This means that the pioneers' job, in the early years, is above all to be steadfast. We must be on guard against downgrading to a less useful, less idealistic goal, just because of the magnitude of the task. Instead of measuring our early steps against the size of the whole job, we should think of them as examples, and have confidence that they will inspire a growing number of contributors to join and finish the job.
Since we hope that teachers and students at many colleges around the world will join in writing contributions to the free encyclopedia, let's not leave this to chance. There are already scattered examples of what can be done. Let's present these examples systematically to the academic community, show the vision of the free universal encyclopedia, and invite others to join in writing it.
What should the free encyclopedia contain?
The free encyclopedia should aim eventually to include one or more articles for any topic you would expect to find in another encyclopedia. In addition, since there is no practical limit to the amount of encyclopedic material that can be on the web, this encyclopedia should eventually also cover the more advanced and specialized topics you might expect to find in specialized encyclopedias, such as an “Encyclopedia of Physics”, “Encyclopedia of Medicine”, “Encyclopedia of Gardening”, or “Encyclopedia of Cooking”. It could go even further; for example, bird watchers might eventually contribute an article on each species of bird, along with pictures and recordings of its calls.
However, only some kinds of information belong in an encyclopedia. For example, scholarly papers, detailed statistical data bases, news reports, fiction and art, extensive bibliographies, and catalogs of merchandise, useful as they are, are outside the scope of an encyclopedia. (Some of the articles might usefully contain links to such works.)
Courses in the learning resource are a generalization to hypertext of the textbooks used for teaching a subject to yourself or to a class. The learning resource should eventually include courses for all academic subjects, from mathematics to art history, and practical subjects such as gardening as well, to the extent this makes sense. (Some practical subjects, such as massage or instrumental ensemble playing, may not be possible to study from a “book” without a human teacher—these are arguably less useful to include.) It should cover these subjects at all the levels that are useful, which might in some cases range from first grade to graduate school.
A useful encyclopedia article will address a specific topic at a particular level, and each author will contribute mainly by focusing on an area that he or she knows very well. But we should keep in the back of our minds, while doing this, the vision of a free encyclopedia that is universal in scope—so that we can firmly reject any attempt to put artificial limits on either the scope or the free status of the encyclopedia.
Criteria pages must meet.
To ensure this encyclopedia is indeed a free and universal encyclopedia, we must set criteria of freeness for encyclopedia articles and courses to meet.
Conventional non-free encyclopedias published by companies such as Microsoft will surely be made available on the web, sooner or later—but you will probably have to pay to read an article, and you surely won't be allowed to redistribute them. If we are content with knowledge as a commodity, accessible only through a computerized bureaucracy, we can simply let companies provide it.
But if we want to keep human knowledge open and freely available to humanity, we have to do the work to make it available that way. We have to write a free encyclopedia—so we must first determine the proper interpretation of “free” for an encyclopedia on the Internet. We must decide what criteria of freedom a free encyclopedia and a free learning resource should meet.
Permit universal access.
The free encyclopedia should be open to public access by everyone who can gain access to the web. Those who seek to gain control over educational materials, so they can profit by restricting access to them, will push us to “compromise” by agreeing to restrict access in exchange for their participation. We must stand firm, and reject any deal that is inconsistent with the ultimate goal. We are in no hurry, and there is no sense in getting to the wrong place a few years sooner.
Permit mirror sites.
When information is available on the web only at one site, its availability is vulnerable. A local problem—a computer crash, an earthquake or flood, a budget cut, a change in policy of the school administration—could cut off access for everyone forever. To guard against loss of the encyclopedia's material, we should make sure that every piece of the encyclopedia is available from many sites on the Internet, and that new copies can be put up if some disappear.
There is no need to set up an organization or a bureaucracy to do this, because Internet users like to set up “mirror sites” which hold duplicate copies of interesting web pages. What we must do in advance is ensure that this is legally permitted.
Therefore, each encyclopedia article and each course should explicitly grant irrevocable permission for anyone to make verbatim copies available on mirror sites. This permission should be one of the basic stated principles of the free encyclopedia.
Some day there may be systematic efforts to ensure that each article and course is replicated in many copies—perhaps at least once on each of the six inhabited continents. This would be a natural extension of the mission of archiving that libraries undertake today. But it would be premature to make formal plans for this now. It is sufficient for now to resolve to make sure people have permission to do this mirroring when they get around to it.
Permit translation into other languages.
People will have a use for encyclopedia material on each topic in every human language. But the primary language of the Internet—as of the world of commerce and science today—is English. Most likely, encyclopedia contributions in English will run ahead of other languages, and the encyclopedia will approach completeness in English first.
Trying to fight this tendency would be self-defeating. The easier way to make the encyclopedia available in all languages is by encouraging one person to translate what another has written. In this way, each article can be translated into many languages.
But if this requires explicit permission, it will be too difficult. Therefore, we must adopt a basic rule that anyone is permitted to publish an accurate translation of any article or course, with proper attribution. Each article and each course should carry a statement giving permission for translations.
To ensure accuracy of translation, the author of the original should reserve the right to insist on corrections in a translation. A translator should perhaps have to give the original author a reasonable amount of time to do this, perhaps three months, before publishing the translation in the first place. After that, the translator should continue to make corrections at the author's request, whenever the author asks for them.
In time, as the number of people involved in encyclopedia activity increases, contributors may form Translation Accuracy Societies for various languages, which undertake to ensure the accuracy of translations into those languages. An author could then designate a Translation Accuracy Society to check and correct a certain translation of a certain work. It may be wise to keep the Translation Accuracy Societies separate from the actual translators, so that each translation will be checked by someone other than the translator.
Permit quotation with attribution.
Each encyclopedia article or course should permit anyone to quote arbitrary portions in another encyclopedia article or course, provided proper attribution is given. This will make it possible to build on the work others have done, without the need to completely replace it.
Different authors may—if they care—set different rules for what constitutes proper attribution to them; that is ok. As long as the rules set for a particular work are not unreasonable or impractical, they will cause no problem.
Permit modified versions of courses.
Courses must evolve, and the original authors won't keep working on them forever. And teachers will want to adapt course materials to their own curriculum plans and teaching methods. Since courses will typically be large (like a textbook today), it would be unacceptably wasteful to tell teachers, “Write your own from scratch, if you want to change this”.
Therefore, modifying an existing course must be permitted; each course should carry a statement giving permission to publish a modified version.
It makes sense to require modified versions to carry proper attribution giving credit to the authors of the previous version, and be labelled clearly as modified, so that there is no confusion about whose views they present.
The GNU Free Documentation License would be a good license to use for courses.
Permit modified versions of pictures and videos, for courses.
Pictures and videos, both drawn and photographic, will play an important role in many courses. Modifying these pictures and videos will be pedagogically useful. For example, you could crop a picture to focus attention on a certain feature, or circle or label particular features. Using false color can help make certain aspects easier to see. Image enhancement is also possible.
Beyond that, an altered version of a picture could illustrate a different but related idea. You could start with a diagram useful for one theorem in geometry, and add to it, to produce a diagram that is relevant to another theorem.
Permission to modify pictures and videos is particularly important because the alternative, to make your own picture or video from scratch, is often very hard. It is not terribly hard to write your own text, to convey certain facts from your own angle, but doing the same thing with a picture is not feasible.
Of course, modified versions of pictures and videos should be labeled as modified, to prevent misattribution of their contents, and should give credit properly to the original.
Only free software in the encyclopedia.
Articles, and especially courses, will often include software—for example, to display a simulation of a chemical reaction, or teach you how often to stir a sauce so it won't burn. To ensure that the encyclopedia is indeed free, all software included in articles and courses should meet the criteria of free software and open source software.
No central control.
People often suggest that “quality control” is essential for an encyclopedia, and ask what sort of “governing board” will decide which articles to accept as part of the free encyclopedia. The answer is, “no one”. We cannot afford to let anyone have such control.
If the free encyclopedia is a success, it will become so ubiquitous and important that we dare not allow any organization to decide what counts as part of it. This organization would have too much power; people would seek to politicize or corrupt it, and could easily succeed.
The only solution to that problem is not to have any such organization, and reject the idea of centralized quality control. Instead, we should let everyone decide. If a web page is about a suitable topic, and meets the criteria for an article, then we can consider it an article. If a page meets the criteria for a course, then we can consider it a course.
But what some pages are erroneous, or even deceptive? We cannot assume this won't happen. But the corrective is for other articles to point out the error. Instead of having “quality control” by one privileged organization, we will have review by various groups, which will earn respect by their own policies and actions. In a world where no one is infallible, this is the best we can do.
Encourage peer review and endorsements.
There will be no single organization in charge of what to include in the encyclopedia or the learning resource, no one that can be lobbied to exclude “creation science” or holocaust denial (or, by the same token, lobbied to exclude evolution or the history of Nazi death camps). Where there is controversy, multiple views will be represented. So it will be useful for readers to be able to see who endorses or has reviewed a given article's version of the subject.
In fields such as science, engineering, and history, there are formal standards of peer review. We should encourage authors of articles and courses to seek peer review, both through existing formal scholarly mechanisms, and through the informal mechanism of asking respected names in the field for permission to cite their endorsement in the article or course.
A peer-review endorsement applies to one version of a work, not to modified versions. Therefore, when a course has peer-review endorsements, it should require anyone who publishes a modified version of the course to remove the endorsements. (The author of the modified version would be free to seek new endorsements for that version.)
No catalogue, yet.
When the encyclopedia is well populated, catalogues will be very important. But we should not try to address the issue of cataloguing now, because it is premature. What we need this year and for the coming years is to write articles. Once we have them, once we have a large number of volunteers producing a large number of articles, that will be the time to catalogue them. At that time, enough people will be interested in the encyclopedia to provide the manpower to do the work.
Since no one organization will be in charge of the encyclopedia, there cannot be one authoritative catalogue. Instead, anyone will be free to make a catalogue, just as anyone is free to provide peer review. Cataloguers will gain respect according to their decisions.
Encyclopedia pages will surely be listed in ordinary web search sites, and perhaps those are the only catalogues that will be needed. But true catalogues should permit redistribution, translation, and modification—that is, the criteria for courses should apply to catalogues as well.
What can usefully be done from the beginning is to report new encyclopedia articles to a particular site, which can record their names as raw material for real catalogues, whenever people start to write them. To start off, we will use http://www.gnu.org/encyclopedia for this.
Making links to other pages.
The last and most important rule for pages in the encyclopedia is the exclusionary rule:
If a page on the web covers subject matter that ought to be in the encyclopedia or the course library, but its license is too restricted to qualify, we must not make links to it from encyclopedia articles or from courses.
This rule will make sure we respect our own rules, in the same way that the exclusionary rule for evidence is supposed to make police respect their own rules: by not allowing us to treat work which fails to meet the criteria as if it did meet them.
The idea of the World Wide Web is that links tie various separate pages into a larger whole. So when encyclopedia articles or courses link to a certain page, those links effectively make the page part of the encyclopedia. To claim otherwise would be self-deception. If we are to take seriously the criteria set forth above, or any criteria whatsoever, we have to base our actions on them, by not incorporating a page into our network of pages if it doesn't fit the criteria.
When a topic ought to be covered in the encyclopedia or with a course, but it isn't, we must make sure we don't forget that we have a gap. The exclusionary rule will remind us. Each time we think of making a link to the unacceptable page, and we stop because of the exclusionary rule, that will remind us that someone ought to write another page about the same topic—one that is free enough to be part of the encyclopedia. Eventually, one of us will do the job.
On the other hand, many web pages cover material that wouldn't normally be included in an encyclopedia—for example, scholarly papers, detailed statistical data bases, news reports, fiction and art, extensive bibliographies, and catalogs of merchandise. Such pages, regardless of whether they are free enough to be in the encyclopedia, are outside its scope. They do not represent gaps in the encyclopedia. So there is no need to apply the encyclopedia criteria in making links to such pages.
To produce a complete encyclopedia which satisfies the principles of freedom stated here will take a long time, but we will get it done eventually—as long as we remember the goal. The greatest danger is that we will lose sight of the goal and settle for less. The exclusionary rule will make sure we keep going all the way.
Uphold the freedom to contribute.
As education moves on-line and is increasingly commercialized, teachers are in danger of losing even the right to make their work freely available to the public. Some universities have tried to claim ownership over on-line materials produced by teachers, to turn it into commercial “courseware” with restricted use. Meanwhile, other universities have outsourced their on-line services to corporations, some of which claim to own all materials posted on the university web sites.
It will be up to professors to resist this tendency. But there is more than one way to do so. The most obvious basis for objection is to say, “I own this work, and I, not the university, have the right to sell it to a company if I wish”. But that places the faculty on the same selfish moral level as the university, so that neither side has a moral advantage in the argument.
If, on the other hand, professors say, “I want to be able to make my work fully available to the public without restriction,” they occupy the commanding moral position, which a university can oppose only by setting itself against the public, against learning, and against scholarship.
Resisting the selling of the university will not be easy. Professors had better make use of any advantage they can find—especially moral advantages.
Two other points that will help are that (1) a few prestigious universities will probably gobble up most of the commercial business, so other universities would be deluding themselves to think they can really get a great deal of funds from selling themselves, and (2) business is likely to drive even the elite universities out of the most lucrative parts of the field.
Spread the word.
When you post a potential encyclopedia article or a course, you can reference this plan if you wish, to help spread the word and inspire others to help.
Works in Progress
Here is a small (and probably incomplete) list of free encyclopedias: