Submissions:2024/Trolls, Pixsies, and Poka-Yokes: Copyleft Enforcement and the Commons

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This submission has been noted and is pending review for WikiConference North America 2024.


Trolls, Pixsies, and Poka-Yokes: Copyleft Enforcement and the Commons

Type of session:

Lecture (15-30 min)

Session theme(s):

Legal & Advocacy


Wikimedia projects rely on photographers to share their work with a free license. The Creative Commons Attribution license, for example, allows anyone to use or modify that work for any reason so long as they take certain steps like crediting the author and linking to the license. Unfortunately, these licenses are poorly understood by the public, and media reusers who depend on Commons for free content frequently fail to follow the requirements.

"Copyleft trolls" exploit the "you can use this!" message that our licenses communicate, scouring the internet with the help of companies like Pixsy, identifying uses which don't follow the letter of the license, and demanding money under threat of legal action. When people build their business with such tools and fail to differentiate between independent/corporate users or minor/major offenses and decline to provide an opportunity to fix the mistake, they are engaging in a practice condemned by Creative Commons and difficult to reconcile with the free culture principles Wikimedia projects are based on.

Wikimedia Commons has struggled with these cases on both a practical and philosophical level, torn between protecting reusers and retaining valuable media. Many such cases also fall in a gray area where the pejorative label "troll" might not be totally fair (after all, disallowing enforcement makes our collection public domain). As a result, Commons decides between bad options involving deletion, blocking, and inaction.

In this talk, I'll explain copyleft trolling, its history within and outside the Wikimedia movement, actions taken by other entities to curb it, and explore possible on-wiki interventions through "poke-yoke", or error-proofing mechanisms. One existing approach is the clumsy "forced watermarking" intervention, but I'll discuss other design possibilities to avoid licensing mistakes and reducing the need to deal with copyleft trolls.

Author name(s):

Ryan McGrady

Wikimedia username(s):


E-mail address:

Affiliated organization(s):

University of Massachusetts Amherst, Wikimedia NYC

Able to attend without scholarship?


Estimated length of session

20 minutes (somewhat flexible -- probably not a lightning talk and probably not a 60-minute talk, though)

Will you be presenting remotely?

Okay to livestream?

Livestreaming is okay

Previously presented?

Special requests: