Wikitravel, Once a Profit Dream, Now Bedevils Its Owner
Live by the wiki, perhaps die by the wiki.
When the California company Internet Brands bought the website Wikitravel in 2005 for $1.7 million from the two developers who had created it, the company got the site and the name, as well as a community of thousands of volunteers who generated the travel guidance that brought the audience.
Soon, with the introduction of advertising to the site, a nice business began to take shape, maybe even an ideal business: Volunteers lovingly created the content; readers visited the site and clicked on the advertising. There was work to be done by the owner, certainly, like making sure the software functioned properly, but mainly this was a media site that ran itself.
There were some catches, however, that made for an unusual business proposition, starting with the fact that Internet Brands had not bought the exclusive right to the material on the site. The articles are governed by a Creative Commons license, which means they can be copied and republished by anyone as long as a mention is included of where the material came from.
Another catch: Workers who do not expect a paycheck may also find it easier to leave.
Soon after the purchase of Wikitravel, in 2006, contributors to the Italian and German sites simply left, not wanting to be part of a commercial site. They “forked” the site, meaning that they copied all of the content to a new site they named Wikivoyage.
Wikitravel is again facing a fork, this time by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia among other projects. On Thursday, the board of Wikimedia, the biggest wiki publisher, approved the creation of a travel guide after an extended online comment period that found support for the idea.
The project will seed itself with the tens of thousands of articles on Wikitravel, and already as many as 38 of the 48 the most experienced and trusted volunteers at Wikitravel have said they will move to the Wikimedia project, according to Dr. James Heilman, a Wikipedia contributor who said he had acted as a liaison between Wikitravel writers and the foundation.
On Aug. 24, Internet Brands filed a lawsuit in Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County against Heilman and a longtime Wikitravel volunteer, Ryan Holliday. The suit did not challenge the right to copy the material, instead focusing in particular on the efforts of the two men to encourage Wikitravel contributors to consider forking.
Certainly, when Wikimedia enters a field, it has the potential to overwhelm its competitors — just ask Encyclopaedia Britannica. But other wiki-based businesses have moved into niches Wikipedia has left open. There is Wikia, for example, which was co-founded by Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, and digs even deeper into popular culture than Wikipedia. Or a site like WikiHow, which offers practical advice on how, for example, to set up a terrarium for a toad.
In its statements, the Wikimedia Foundation has emphasized it is hoping to join a community of online travel guides. But even though it is a nonprofit, the foundation represents a serious threat, and Internet Brands, which operates more than 200 websites, is treating it as such.
In a statement, an Internet Brands spokesman outlined the company’s complaint: “Internet Brand’s claims are not about properly licensed content, but about how certain individuals have violated IB’s rights as they pertain to trademark, intellectual property and unfair business practices.”
The Wikimedia Foundation filed a separate complaint last week in a different California court on behalf of the two men and itself, asking a court to rule that forking has and remains a legal activity.
In a blog post, Kelly Kay, deputy legal counsel for the foundation, described the lawsuit as an attempt to intimidate.
“Our actions today represent the full stride of our commitment to protect the Wikimedia movement against the efforts of for-profit entities like Internet Brands to prevent communities and volunteers from making their own decisions about where and how freely usable content may be shared,” she wrote.
In a statement, Internet Brands in turn questioned the motives of the Wikimedia Foundation.
“The foundation covets Internet Brands’ Wikitravel website, which we have spent seven years and millions of dollars building, supporting and growing,” the company said. “In March, the foundation began supporting efforts to recreate the website in its exact form. More recently, in the wake of a six-month campaign to galvanize a migration, the foundation escalated its plans by asking us to transfer this site to the foundation in exchange for nothing.”
Heilman, an emergency room doctor who is on the board of the foundation’s chapter in Canada, has often encouraged Wikipedia to “liberate” information. A few years ago, he pressed Wikipedia to publish the images used in the Rorschach inkblot test; some psychologists said the publication would allow people to “cheat” on the test, while others said it was integral to the educational purpose of an encyclopedia.
In February, he posted a note to Wikitravel proposing that Wikitravel be integrated within Wikimedia: His stated reasons included the absence of advertising at the Wikimedia project, and the potential for better performance because of Wikimedia’s robust infrastructure.
While advertising does not affect the freedom of the content it surrounds, Heilman made it clear that he viewed the situation as less than ideal, if only because it meant people like him would not want to contribute to the site and help spread “the sum of all human knowledge.”
“The ideals of the Wikimedia movement, I hold them dearly,” Heilman said by telephone from Arolla, Switzerland, where he was hiking with his wife.
He said he quickly discovered that discontent already existed among the site’s top volunteers, who are called administrators.
“The current situation wasn’t tolerable,” he said, “but they never contacted the Wikimedia Foundation because they didn’t think the foundation was interested.”
Internet Brands tried to reach some compromise with the Wikimedia Foundation, both sides confirm. The idea, according to the company’s spokesman, was “to discuss partnership options.” The Wikimedia Foundation, in its court filing, said Internet Brands “proposed creating a new travel-oriented wiki that could be jointly run as a ‘semi for-profit’ company with Wikimedia,” a proposal the foundation declined “because operating such a commercial wiki project is contrary to its mission of disseminating free information.”
Lila I. Bailey, a former legal counsel for Creative Commons, the nonprofit organization that created the open copyright licenses employed by Wikitravel, said Internet Brands was in a tough spot.
Bailey, a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, law school, read both complaints and said Internet Brands essentially faced “a community management problem” and had few options because the people involved were volunteers.
As for the notion that the Wikimedia project could somehow cause confusion in the marketplace or violate Wikitravel’s trademark, Bailey said that while the license required an attribution about where the content originated, to avoid confusion Wikitravel could require that the attribution be omitted.
Wikitravel is likely to lose its volunteers, she said, simply because Wikipedia is a “warm and fuzzy brand that is free with no ads.”
New York Times