no free imageWhen you think of a political party, you probably don’t think of cocktails and buffalo wings. But that’s the kind of political party I found myself at on election night (May 20). As I chatted up a candidate for Treasurer of Oregon, I spotted a few other notable politicians, whose Wikipedia articles lack even a basic photo. So I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera, and asked if I could snap their pictures.

Each politician I approached graciously agreed, and Wikipedia’s coverage of Oregon politics became just a little more complete.

Putting an image on Wikipedia can be one of the more frustrating tasks on the encyclopedia that (supposedly) anyone can edit. The upload system is a little clunky, but moreover, the legal and procedural technicalities can confound even the most eager and dedicated contributor.

So, at the end of this blog post is a simple and little-known procedure that allows anyone with an email account to submit a photo of themselves, or of someone they represent.

But first — why is it such a pain in the butt to upload a picture? It’s easy on sites like Flickr and Myspace, so what’s the deal with Wikipedia? Are Wikipedians a bunch of elitists, or sadists, who put up procedural hurdles just to watch the newbies squirm?

Maybe. But there’s more to it than that.

The Wikipedia community, which makes the rules about such things, holds a couple principles in very high regard: (1) compliance with copyright law, and (2) building a resource of images whose use is not restricted by copyright, for future uses.

Copyright law in the U.S. allows “fair use” of copyright-protected images in many cases. This is how a lot of images wind up in newspapers and on other web sites; the publisher makes an educated guess as to whether a certain use will qualify as “fair use,” and whether the copyright owner is even likely to try to enforce their rights. But with a highly collaborative project like Wikipedia, opinions on what might qualify as “fair use” multiply faster than any sober observer can match them up against the technicalities of the law.

As a result, Wikipedians have made the decision that “fair use” images are discouraged, in favor of images that are not protected by restrictive copyright protections. This includes old photos, whose copyright has expired; works of the U.S. Federal government agencies, whose works are automatically in the public domain (unlike state or local government); and images whose owners have explicitly released some of their ownership rights.

In the case of biographical articles of living persons, fair use images are not just discouraged, but actually prohibited. The reasoning is that, at least in theory, it’s possible to take a photo of pretty much any living person, and release the photo under a permissive license (unlike, say, a historic event).

All of these considerations mean that the upload system has to be somewhat complex — the complexity is inherent in the whole copyright issue. (Discussion about how to address this situation is ongoing, as I touched on in this blog post a couple months ago.)

But until the system is perfected, there’s is an easier option for biographies. And even though you didn’t give me a plate of buffalo wings, I’ll let you in on the secret:

If you, or someone you represent, is the subject of an unillustrated article, and you’re willing to release a photo under a permissive license, all you have to do is submit it by email, and it’ll get taken care of. The exact instructions are here; but basically, all you have to do is assert that you own it, and that you release it under a certain license, and then hit the “send” button.