On this day 47 years ago (October 16, 1968), two black American sprinters took advantage their moment on a global stage, when they — with a white Australian — quietly directed the world’s attention to the deep racial injustices that run through our society. I won’t retell the story here, but a friend’s words concisely capture its significance: “Forty-seven years ago, I thought this was wrong. Now I understand and support it completely. I am ashamed of my naiveté. Patriots.” If you’re not familiar with how this event brought global attention to racial injustice, I urge you to read about it.
What I’d like to tell you about is how this incident illustrates a little-known point: how the volunteer community of Wikipedia and its sister project, Wikimedia Commons, do important and unique work in the public interest, every day.
A historic moment like this impacts us all. In some sense, we might consider it a moment we all “own” collectively; a moment with roots in broad social forces, in addition to the bold choices made by a few individuals. But in so many cases, the only photographic record of a moment like this is created by a private photographer, and its publication is restricted by copyright.
If I wrote a blog post about Tank Man, for instance — one of the “iconic images of the 20th century” — I would have to navigate some complex legal waters in order to legitimately put a photo of him on my blog; there are only a handful of photos of that moment, and each is copyrighted. The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima — another iconic 20th century photo — is also under a copyright claim, though that claim appears to be illegitimate. A few months ago, I blogged about another sports moment, hoping to find an individual fan willing to release their photo or video under a free license; but thus far, I have come up short.
Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons discourage (in slightly different ways) the use of copyrighted material, and aim to empower readers to republish what they find on the site. And in order to make good on these goals, volunteers have gradually compiled elaborate, and incredibly thorough documentation of various copyright laws around the world. These same volunteers continually evaluate specific images in relation to those laws, in order to clearly inform our readers about the basis of any claim of public domain (or free license) status.
In the case of the 1968 Black Power Salute, it turns out that several of the many photos of that moment were published in Italy. This seemingly esoteric point is more significant than you might think: the publication date is apparently sufficient to make the photos public domain in Italy, and — by another arcane legal calculation — also in the United States.
In addition, a mural based on the photos is apparently covered by an Australian law, which permitted a photographer to release their photo of it under a free license.
So, not only will you find these images on Wikipedia articles and in a Wikimedia Commons category; if you want to republish them (as I have here), and you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you’ll also find information that will help you evaluate whether or not you can legally do so.
The actions of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman on that day 47 years ago were noble and important. It’s worthwhile that we should be able to make reference to that moment — both in our words, and by sharing visual representations — without undue friction.
So today, I invite you to join me in saluting (with a little less gravitas, I suppose) the Wikimedia volunteers who diligently pore over legal texts, talk and argue about how they apply to particular cases, and freely give the rest of the world the results of their deliberations.
(Readers may also be interested in this earlier blog post about Wikimedia Commons. Also, please note — due to a technical oversight, I failed to publish this on the actual anniversary, October 16, and am publishing it on the 17th; I’ve back-dated it.)