Copyright law doesn't apply to entire languages or self-portraits taken by monkeys, according to Wikipedia, which explains in its first-ever transparency report how it has responded to various content removal requests over the past two years.
From July 2012 to June 2014, the Wikimedia Foundation -- the non-profit behind Wikipedia -- received 304 general requests to remove information from the site. None of those requests was granted.
In one case, a photographer had asked for the removal of images taken not by him, but by a female crested black macaque monkey who got hold of his camera when it was left unattended in a national park in Indonesia. The simian selfies were eventually posted on Wikimedia Commons after appearing in an online news article, and the Wikimedia Foundation concluded that the photographer did not own the copyright to the photographs as he had not taken them. Consequently, the photos remained online.
Copyright Does Not Apply
In another case, a language center asked Wikipedia to remove an entire article on the "palawa kani" project to reconstruct a language similar to the now-extinct tongues once spoken by aboriginal Tasmanians.
"We refused to remove the article because copyright law simply cannot be used to stop people from using an entire language or to prevent general discussion about the language," the transparency report said. "Such a broad claim would have chilled free speech and negatively impacted research, education, and public discourse."
We reached out to Katherine Maher, the Wikimedia Foundation's chief communication officer, to learn more about the transparency report.
Although online content removal requests have received greater media attention since the May 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice in favor of a person's "right to be forgotten," the timing of Wikipedia's report had nothing to do with that case, Maher said. As the site's usership has grown, the Wikipedia Foundation began tracking content removal and user data requests two years ago because "we felt it was important users were aware of this," she said.
In addition to content removal requests, Wikipedia also tracked requests for user data and infringement complaints related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Of 58 DMCA requests it received between 2012 and 2014, the Wikimedia Foundation granted 41 percent of those and removed what it determined was infringing content. That included a photo on Wikimedia Commons of then-Sen. Barack Obama meeting with Nelson Mandela for the first time.
"Because the photographer David Katz was a federal employee at the time, the photo was believed to be in the public domain," the transparency report noted. "Katz argued the photo was not taken as part of his 'official duties' and thus not in the public domain. After an exhaustive factual investigation, we could not find sufficient evidence that photography was one of Katz's official duties, and therefore removed the image."
A Right to Knowledge
Compared with other Internet giants like Google and Facebook, Wikipedia receives few requests for user information. From July 2012 to June 2014, it received just 56 requests -- most of them in the U.S. -- and produced information in response to 14 percent of those.
"Often," the report noted, "we have no nonpublic information to disclose because we collect little nonpublic information about users, and retain that information for a short period of time. But when we do have data, we carefully evaluate every request before considering disclosure. If the requests do not meet our standards -- if they are overly broad, unclear, or irrelevant -- we will push back on behalf of our users."
While the Wikimedia Foundation plans to update its transparency report annually, it will also begin publicizing "right to be forgotten" requests as they come in, Maher said.
"Hopefully, we won't have many," she said. "This isn't just a matter of transparency. People have a right to knowledge."