Wikitravel versus Wikimedia: something is going badly wrong with the free content movement

Internet Brands, owner of the Wikitravel website, is attempting to sue two of its volunteer editors after they agreed to transfer operation of their site to the Wikimedia Foundation, the foundation which operates Wikipedia. It’s a messy business – and worrying for supporters of user-edited sites.

Wikitravel is a collaborative project to create a multilingual worldwide travel guide. It is powered by the same software as Wikipedia, and like the encyclopaedia, can be edited by anyone.

In response, the Wikimedia Foundation has filed a suit in San Francisco against Internet Brands, seeking “…a judicial declaration that Internet Brands has no lawful right to impede, disrupt or block the creation of a new travel oriented, Wikimedia Foundation-owned website in response to the request of Wikimedia community volunteers.”

Although all of Wikitravel’s content is free under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License 3.0, the case against the Wikimedia Foundation concerns how these two volunteers have gone about encouraging a forking of the content, and not ownership of the content itself.

While the Wikimedia Foundation is no stranger to the court room, legal proceedings surrounding foundation projects have never left me with such an unsettling feeling before. In terms of Internet Brands’ actions, their litigation gives me the impression of a chilling effect which strikes at the very heart of the free content movement and its participants who are so proactive: Wikipedia and other user-edited projects owe their very existence to people who, when seeing something that can be improved, have the boldness to improve it themselves.

The case is a perfect example of corporate America struggling to adapt to today’s era of copyleft and free licencing – principles which I have no doubt many editors from different wikis are construing as being under a resentful attack. The Wikimedia Foundation has stated that it is not intimidated by Internet Brands’ actions (and plans to go ahead with the move anyway), but how likely is it that Wikitravel volunteers can say the same thing? Not to mention the other thousands of volunteers who contribute to all kinds of wikis, suddenly asking themselves if their good faith actions could incur legal repercussions.

This could have been a respectable farewell between Internet Brands and Wikitravel volunteers, but that is evidently not going to be the case, and if anything, will only catalyse the development of a good relationship between the Wikimedia Foundation and its new project. Those who operate other people’s intellectual work, take note: scorched earth policies never reflect well on you – especially when they concern land that has been cultivated and maintained out of nothing more than good will.