Wikipedia:History of non-free content policies

This page gives a survey of the historical development of Wikipedia's rules about non-free content, the non-free content criteria and related speedy deletion criteria. This timeline of policy developments provides a useful background for discussions of present policy issues regarding this field.

In discussions about non-free content, editors often display a lack of awareness of how these policies developed in Wikipedia and for how long they have been in place. Many long-term editors are under the impression that non-free content policing has become successively stricter over recent years. Some editors express a sense of dissatisfaction at what they perceive as a tendency of adding more and more "red tape" to the non-free content rules, leading to ever more radical deletion purges. The present page demonstrates that the perception of an ongoing trend towards stricter rules is largely untrue. Most of the crucial elements of the non-free content rules have in reality been in place, virtually unmodified except for minor cosmetic changes, since at least 2006. As far as deletion formalities are concerned, the rules have, if anything, been watered down in favour of making speedy deletions less easy since 2008. The misperception is largely due to the fact that in many cases it has taken a long while until rules that had long been in force in theory could actually be enforced across the project, due to the sheer size of the backlogs and the persistence of non-conformant uploading practices.

Development of WP:NFC and WP:NFCC[edit]

  • The earliest policy texts dealing with fair use were developed in mid-2003 as part of the Wikipedia:Copyrights page (e.g. [1]) At this time, the wording contained few explicit restrictions yet.
  • The page Wikipedia:Image description page, from 3 September 2003, contained instructions on how to write a fair use rationale [2]. At that point, the instructions were to put the rationales into a hidden (HTML comment) text section in the article itself, rather than on the image description page. The earliest draft of these instructions already contained two model rationales that were to continue in use for several years. The rather misconceived wording of one of them – the nonsensical "it shows the subject of this article and how the event depicted was very historically significant to the general public" – was later to be mindlessly copied by innumerable uploaders and can still be found on historic photographs occasionally.
  • In October 2003, Wikipedia:Image description page was modified to say that rationales should also be on the image page itself [3].
  • The first substantial draft of what was later to become WP:NFC, then under the name Wikipedia:Fair use, was written in February 2004 [4]. At that time, it was meant to be a process page where new images proposed to be added under fair use were to be listed for approvement and discussed individually.
  • The embryonic WP:NFC page was rewritten to become a systematic guideline text in June 2004 [5]. From the very first draft, it contained:
  • In June 2005 a section of "counterexamples" was added to WP:NFC [6]. This was later to morph into the current WP:NFC#UUI examples list. From the earliest draft it contained wording that foreshadowed some of the later "subject of discussion" rules ("A detailed map […] used in an article about the region depicted. The only context in which this might be fair use is if the map itself was a topic of a passage in the article"), and wording about "iconic" status of some photographs.
  • In August 2005 the WP:NFC page was "boldly" rewritten. At this time, the sections that were to evolve into the current WP:NFCI example list were added [7]. The rules were stated in a more casuistic than systematic manner. This version contains the earliest definite statement of the replaceability criterion and the mainspace-only rule. The verbiage of "… for critical commentary" and "…for identification" was also introduced here.
  • In September 2005, a distinction was introduced between a designated set of "blanket categories" of acceptable use types (cover art, logos etc.), and other cases [8]
  • The separate WP:NFCC policy page was drafted and transcluded into a section of WP:NFC [9] [10] from 4 October 2005, and promoted to policy status on 5 January 2006 [11]. The items in that first version of WP:NFCC essentially correspond directly to the current NFC criteria, including in particular:
    • The demand for separate explicit fair-use rationales for each article
    • Wording closely corresponding to the present NFCC #1–3 (replaceability, commercial opportunities, minimality)
    • Something resembling the current NFCC#8 ("must contribute significantly to the article (e.g. identify the subject of an article, or specifically illustrate relevant points or sections within the text) and must not serve a purely decorative purpose.")
  • The structure of the numbering of ten criteria was created more or less incidentally in mid-January 2006, when somebody changed a bulleted list into a numbered list [12]
  • The current wording of NFCC#8 developed some time in mid-2007. [13][14][15][16]. Ever since then, the wording of the NFCC has been essentially stable.
  • Wikipedia:Fair use was moved to Wikipedia:Non-free content in April 2007 [17]; corresponding cosmetic changes to the naming and wording of related templates followed.
  • In March 2007, the Wikimedia Foundation passed its Licensing policy declaration, providing a special binding quality particularly for the minimality and replaceability criteria. The resolution points to's non-free content policy as an example of an "exemption doctrine policy" that all other projects must develop.
  • Between 2007 and 2008, a large-scale effort was made to finally enforce formal compliance with the long-standing rules on all files, with a prominent role being played by systematic automatic tagging by BetacommandBot (talk · contribs) (see Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Archive91#BetacommandBot and Fair use)
  • In February 2008, a page Wikipedia:Non-free content criteria compliance was created to plan the cleanup effort further. The page never made it beyond "proposed process" status.
  • In September 2008, the Signpost ran a dispatch reminding the community of the need for non-free image review

Development of the deletion process[edit]

  • A semi-speedy CSD (7-day waiting period) for orphaned non-free images (WP:CSD#I5) was added to WP:CSD in September 2005, per ordre de Jimbo [18]. (Only a few days earlier, the corresponding rules CSD#I3 and #I4 for inappropriately licensed non-commercial-only images and for images lacking source information had been added by Jimbo personally.) The {{di-orphaned fair use}} template was created on 17 October 2005.
  • WP:CSD#I6 and an early form of #I7, for missing and invalid rationales, were added on 4 May 2006 [19]. I6 allowed for older uploads lacking rationales to be grandfathered in initially, but implied they would have to be brought into conformance later. I7 contained only what is now #F7a ("any image with a clearly invalid fair-use tag (such as a {{logo}} tag on a photograph of a mascot) can be deleted at any time")
  • Image undeletion was enabled on 16 June 2006 by Brion Vibber. In announcing this new feature, Brion said that "It's my hope that this will encourage admins to tackle the deletion backlogs a little more aggressively, since mistakes will be easier to undo."
  • WP:CSD#I7 was expanded to a very strong statement that allowed deletion for any form of failure of the NFCC after 48 hours, in August 2006 [20][21] ("Media that fails any part of the fair use criteria)
  • WP:CSD#I7 was split into several sub-cases in April 2008 [22], to cater for different conditions on waiting periods. The wording still contained the essential "fail any part of the non-free content criteria" condition.
  • WP:CSD#I7 was streamlined in September 2008 [23]. At this point, the explicit "fail any part of the non-free content criteria" wording was lost in favour of a less clear wording mentioning "invalid fair-use claims". This has more recently been interpreted by some as referring only to formally deficient fair use rationales, rather than to all cases of objective substantive failings of the criteria.
  • A special WP:CSD#F7b about non-free images from commercial news agencies, reflecting long-standing older practice, was added in November 2010 [24].