Four years ago, if you had said that a free Web-based encyclopedia written by thousands of amateur scholars could rival the breadth and accuracy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, you would have been laughed back to your video games. Jimmy Wales, founder of the wildly popular Wikipedia, received his share of that sort of ridicule.
Today, Wales has won over his skeptics and become a leading evangelist for the burgeoning 'free culture' movement, which borrows the principles of collaboration and sharing from the open-source software community and applies them to other areas of knowledge. Wikipedia is the most prominent example. One of the largest collections of human knowledge ever assembled, the multilingual site contains more than 2 million articles on topics ranging from art history to zoology. Peer review technology weeds out errors, resulting in remarkably accurate entries.
Since last summer, Wales has been advocating for his list of '10 things that will be free,' reports Ethan Zuckerman on WorldChanging.com. In a call to arms to Web developers and Internet users, Wales suggests that technology should strengthen what he considers the digital commons. In true collaborative form, Wales has been revising and expanding his list based on feedback from readers and lecture audiences.
Some of his items correspond to projects already under way at Wales' nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation (http://wikimedia.org), including Wiktionary, a collaborative dictionary that 'aims to describe all words of all languages' (the English edition already boasts nearly 100,000 entries), and Wikibooks, an effort to end academic publishers' lock on textbooks in which volunteers have created more than 11,000 open-content entries for textbooks and manuals. Another is Wikicities (http://wikicities.com), a for-profit venture that hosts ad-supported open-content community portals using wiki software.
Music and art also belong in the free culture movement, Wales says. The Creative Commons licensing system gives artists the freedom to publish new works with nuanced copyrights that specify allowable uses such as sharing, sampling, remixing, and reselling. Already, huge archives of such works can be found through www.creativecommons.org and www.archive.org. Wales imagines community orchestras recording and assembling a free collection of the world's great symphonic works, most of which are in the public domain.
Longer-term items range from the practical (search engines, GIS mapping systems, and TV listings) to the arcane (peer-reviewed academic journals; open file formats; and a universal system of product identifiers, like ISBN numbers, for every product on Earth).
Wales' agenda for spreading free culture mojo is ambitious, to be sure. But if his history of surprising success is any guide, the future of the digital commons is in good hands.