The Wikipedia Zeitgeist

One of the many joys of my job — and a reason why I’ll never retire — is the steady stream of interesting publications that pass my desk.  Today brought the August 2008 issue Super Lawyers, Corporate Counsel Edition, and it includes a profile of Wikimedia’s in-house counsel, Mike Godwin.

Godwin was the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s first lawyer, after catching its founders attention with a computer crime true story involving the Secret Service’s raid on Steven Jackson Games (which is documented in Bruce Sterling’s The hacker crackdown : law and disorder on the electronic frontier)

According to the Super Lawyers story, “The Wikipedia Zeitgeist: Why Mike Godwin disowns his own content,” by Larry Rosen, Godwin joined Wikipedia in July 2007 because he was “intrigued by Wikipedia’s impact on copyright liability and free speech.”

“We expressly disown our content,” he says.  “The legal framework set up in the ’90s protects publishers from liability for content they did not produce. . . . The thing we set out to do philosophically — provide free content and not own it — actually provides us with a lot of legal protection.”

Since Wikipedia includes articles about people who are still living, the protection is tested often.  “I do a lot of explaining,” Godwin says.

The explanation includes an invitation to join the Wikipedia community.  “Add your voice to it; correct the record,” he tells critics.  “We’ll show you how.”

The power of Wikepedia, and the entire Internet, is that “everyone now has a chance to correct the record.  But,” he cautions, “this is such a fundamental social change that it’ll take at least a generation to get accustomed to it.”

. . .