Sunday, July 8, 2007

Drama lamp

With thanks to SPUI for the post title.

The Register ran a rather quaint piece about OTRS, the other day. En.wikipedia's article on the lava lamp was stubbed for about two weeks, pending legal concerns. According to writer Cade Metz and interviewee John Barberio, there was no explanation.

It's rather apparent Metz didn't put much effort into researching the issue, and I'm a little perplexed why Barberio, described as a seasoned editor of Wikipedia, wasn't able to point him in the right direction. With just one click, we can take ourselves to the article's talk page, where we see numerous references to trademark concerns, all made shortly after the OTRS action. Inside another minute, we can use the whatlinkshere function to find this thread on the admin noticeboards, which in turn links to numerous user talk page discussions, including this one on the acting volunteer's talk page. This has been discussed a few times on IRC, including on public channels, and most or all of those discussions quickly reached the conclusion that legal concerns were afoot.

Now, I don't expect the vast majority of web denizens to immediately find and process this information. But I would expect that a Wikipedian with two years of experience, or a reporter hoping to investigate their story, would be more than able. That neither of them bothered to notice they were swimming in a sea of explanations seems to indicate they couldn't be bothered to check.

We can debate all day whether the aforementioned legal concerns should have led to the blanking of the article. As I write this, the article has been restored, and the legal complaint has evaporated (I'm told they stopped responding, when it was pointed out that a search of the US trademark database yielded no results, and they were asked to provide specific evidence of their claim). OTRS actions can always be discussed, and other OTRS members can (and did) participate in these discussions, to great effect. At the time of the incident, the Wikimedia Foundation was lacking a designated legal counsel -- with no one to fall back on, for legal matters, can we really fault one volunteer for playing it safe?

Hopefully, with Mike Godwin hired on as counsel, this sort of thing will be less problematic, now.

I'm still at a loss to figure how this ever became an issue where "censorship" was a rallying cry, or why one possible overreaction, from one volunteer, at a bad time, in a project which has been running for several years, somehow constitutes doomsday.

In closing, I do think this has demonstrated a need for improved communication, within the community, and is one more downfall of the foundation's recent staffing issues -- both of which are quite serious issues -- but I don't know if we should take it as any more than that.

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