It seems a debate is brewing in the "Wikipedia-sphere" surrounding the commercialization and the soon-to-be-made profit from the voluntarily written and edited online encyclopedia web site. For the first time, a major publisher has made plans to print out and sell popular articles from the site, leaving many wondering if the content's writers are being scammed out of royalties to which they are due.

Wikipedia, the Print Edition

A major German publisher, Bertelsmann, has announced plans to print a book called "The One-Volume Wikipedia Encyclopedia," which goes on sale this September for 19.95 euros (around $32 U.S.). The book will feature some of the year's most popular articles. Says Dr. Varnhorn, the editor in charge of Bertelsmann's reference works, in a recent NY Times article, "We think of it as an online encyclopedic yearbook." A statement that foreshadows the possibility of this book becoming the first of many annually printed editions.

Is this legal? Yes. Apparently, the material on the Wikipedia site is free for use given that you cite Wikipedia as the source. In addition, Bertelsmann will pay the foundation one euro for every copy sold.

But where does this leave the scores of writers who voluntarily gave their time to help in the creation of an online reference, something which they had believed to be a noble effort? Mark O'Neill of Now Sourcing believes he knows exactly where this leaves those writers: ripped off. He writes:

"Wikipedia is ripping them off big-time. No, in fact, let’s not beat around the bush here. Let’s say it for what it really is. Wikipedia is SHAFTING THEM....Had they known that Wikipedia would then use their work in a commercial printed venture, I’m sure they would have had second thoughts about writing those articles. At the very least they would have demanded a contract and perhaps a guarantee of financial compensation later." 

Some of the commenters on his post disagree. As one points out, there is no rip-off - Bertelsmann will be selling the content legally under the terms of the GNU-FDL license, which makes it perfectly OK.

But let's be honest here, if the writers thought that the content they were contributing was to help a commercial publisher make a buck, and not part of a movement to "let information be free," would they still have given so much of their time on a volunteer basis?

It's one thing to see Wikipedia distributed to the developing world, like when SOS Children's Village, the world's largest orphan charity, distributed Wikipedia CDs to Africa, but it's quite another to know that you're making money for someone else...for free.

To Arne Klempert, though, executive director of Wikimedia Germany, "It is not about the money. It is a very good example of the power of knowledge." That may be true, but Bertelsmann won't be making deposits of "knowledge" at the bank, will they?