Litigation involving the Wikimedia Foundation

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The Wikimedia Foundation has been involved in several lawsuits. Some of them have gone in favor of the Foundation, others have gone against it.


In an article titled "Dealing with Wikipedia libel: why a ‘self-help’ remedy is often the best solution", the authors suggest that in most cases the best solution is to change the contents and monitor the article. [1]

This listing is not meant to be exhaustive, and only includes notable cases.

Outcomes in favor of the plaintiffs

In May 2011, Louis Bacon obtained a court order against the Wikimedia Foundation to compel it to reveal the identity of the editors who defamed him on Wikipedia. However, the order was obtained in the UK, and is therefore unenforceable in the United States. [2] [3]

In January 2019, a court in Germany ruled against the Wikimedia Foundation, prompting it to remove part of the history and the allegedly defamatory content about a professor. The Wikipedia article's content was ruled defamatory because the link supporting its claims was no longer active, a phenomenon known as "link rot." Jacob Rogers and Allison Davenport wrote about the legal decision, "it does not impose any new editorial standards on individual Wikipedia contributors." [4]

Outcomes in favor of the Wikimedia Foundation

Barbara Bauer, a literary agent, sued Wikimedia Foundation (which owns Wikipedia) for defamation. [5] [6] She claimed that a Wikipedia entry branded her the “dumbest” literary agent. [6] But the case was dismissed because of the Communications Decency Act. [7]

Professional golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, who also felt he was defamed on Wikipedia, did not sue Wikipedia because he was told that his suit would not prevail in light of the Communications Decency Act. [8] He then sued the Miami firm from whose computers the edits were made, but later dropped the case. [9]

In 2007, three French nationals sued the Wikimedia Foundation when an article on Wikipedia described them as gay activists. [10] [11] A French court dismissed the defamation and privacy case, ruling that the Foundation was not legally responsible for information in Wikipedia articles. [11] The judge ruled that a 2004 French law limited the Foundation's liability, and found that the content had already been removed. [10] [11] He found that the Foundation was not legally required to check the information on Wikipedia, and that "Web site hosts cannot be liable under civil law because of information stored on them if they do not in fact know of their illicit nature." [11] He did not rule whether the information was defamatory. [10] [11]

Sylvia Scott Gibson, author of Latawnya, the Naughty Horse, Learns to Say "No" to Drugs , sued Wikipedia for describing her book. [12] Her suit was dismissed. [13]

Other alleged defamation

John Seigenthaler, an American writer and journalist, contacted Wikipedia in 2005 after his article was edited to incorrectly state that he had been thought for a brief time to be involved in the assassinations of John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. The content was present in the article for four months. [6] [14] Seigenthaler called Wikipedia a "flawed and irresponsible research tool," and criticized the protection the Communications Decency Act provided to Wikipedia. [6]

The representative for the American Academy of Financial Management, George Mentz, suggested that either phony or incompetent Wikipedia editors were creating legal problems for Wikimedia in May 2013, because of alleged intentional false claims that had been published on Wikipedia. [15]

In 2014, Yank Barry filed a defamation lawsuit against four Wikipedia editors, [16] [17] and then withdrew it after about a month. [18]

DMCA takedown notices

Texas Instruments sent a DMCA takedown notice to the Wikimedia Foundation because certain cryptographic keys were made public in the Texas Instruments signing key controversy article. A Wikipedia editor later filed a counter-notice, Texas Instruments did not reply in 10–14 business days as required by the DMCA, and the keys were restored to the article.

Two other articles also came under the purview of Wikipedia's office actions[ clarification needed ] because of the DMCA: Damon Dash and Conventional PCI.

FBI seal controversy

In July 2010, the FBI sent a letter to the Wikimedia Foundation demanding that it cease and desist from using its seal on Wikipedia. [19] The FBI claimed that such practice was illegal and threatened to sue. In reply, Wikimedia counsel Michael Godwin sent a counter notice to the FBI claiming that Wikipedia was not in the wrong when it displayed the FBI seal on its website. [20] He defended Wikipedia's actions and also refused to remove the seal. [21]

NSA lawsuit

In March 2015, the Wikimedia Foundation, along with other groups, sued the National Security Agency over its upstream mass surveillance program. [22]

See also

Related Research Articles

History of Wikipedia Historical development of Wikipedia

Wikipedia began with its first edit on 15 January 2001, two days after the domain was registered by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Its technological and conceptual underpinnings predate this; the earliest known proposal for an online encyclopedia was made by Rick Gates in 1993, and the concept of a free-as-in-freedom online encyclopedia was proposed by Richard Stallman in December 2000.

Defamation is the oral or written communication of a false statement about another that unjustly harms their reputation and usually constitutes a tort or crime. In several countries, including South Korea and Sweden, communicating a true statement can also be considered defamation.

Actual malice in United States law is a legal requirement imposed upon public officials or public figures when they file suit for libel. Unlike other individuals who are less well-known to the general public, public officials and public figures are held to a higher standard for what they must prove before they may succeed in a defamation lawsuit.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that the freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restrict the ability of American public officials to sue for defamation. Specifically, it held that if a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit is a public official or person running for public office, not only must he or she prove the normal elements of defamation—publication of a false defamatory statement to a third party—he or she must also prove that the statement was made with "actual malice", meaning that the defendant either knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was true.

<i>Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc.</i>

Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe Inc., 776 F. Supp. 135 was a 1991 court decision in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York which held that Internet service providers were subject to traditional defamation law for their hosted content. The case resolved a claim of libel against CompuServe, an Internet service provider that hosted allegedly defamatory content in one of its forums. The case established a precedent for Internet service provider liability by applying defamation law, originally intended for hard copies of written works, to the Internet medium. The court held that although CompuServe did host defamatory content on its forums, CompuServe was merely a distributor, rather than a publisher, of the content. As a distributor, CompuServe could only be held liable for defamation if it knew, or had reason to know, of the defamatory nature of the content. As CompuServe had made no effort to review the large volume of content on its forums, it could not be held liable for the defamatory content.

Barrett v. Rosenthal, 40 Cal.4th 33 (2006), was a California Supreme Court case concerning online defamation. The case resolved a defamation claim brought by Stephen Barrett, Terry Polevoy, and attorney Christopher Grell against Ilena Rosenthal and several others. Barrett and others alleged that the defendants had republished libelous information about them on the internet. In a unanimous decision, the court held that Rosenthal was a "user of interactive computer services" and therefore immune from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Internet Brands American new media company founded in 1998

MH Sub I, LLC dba Internet Brands is an American new media company based in El Segundo, California, United States, that operates online media, community, and e-commerce sites in vertical markets. The company also develops and licenses internet software and social media applications.

A person who is found to have published a defamatory statement may evoke a defence of innocent dissemination, which absolves him/her of liability provided that he/she had no knowledge of the defamatory nature of the statement, and that his/her failure to detect the defamatory content was not due to negligence. The defence, sometimes also known as "mechanical distributor", is of concern to Internet Service Providers because of their potential liability for defamatory material posted by their subscribers.

Ripoff Report consumer advocacy website

Ripoff Report is a privately owned and operated for-profit website founded by Ed Magedson. The Ripoff Report has been online since December 1998 and is operated by Xcentric Ventures, LLC which is based in Tempe, Arizona.

Neutral reportage is a common law defense against libel and defamation lawsuits usually involving the media republishing unproven accusations about public figures. It is a limited exception to the common law rule that one who repeats a defamatory statement is just as guilty as the first person who published it.

Modern libel and slander laws, as implemented in many Commonwealth nations as well as in the United States and in the Republic of Ireland, are originally descended from English defamation law. The history of defamation law in England is somewhat obscure; civil actions for damages seem to have been relatively frequent as far back as the reign of Edward I (1272–1307), though it is unknown whether any generally applicable criminal process was in place. The first fully reported case in which libel is affirmed generally to be punishable at common law was tried during the reign of James I (1603-1625). Scholars frequently attribute strict English defamation law to James I's outlawing of duelling. From that time, both the criminal and civil remedies have been found in full operation.

The origins of the United States' defamation laws pre-date the American Revolution; one influential case in 1734 involved John Peter Zenger and established precedent that "The Truth" is an absolute defense against charges of libel. Though the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect freedom of the press, for most of the history of the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to use it to rule on libel cases. This left libel laws, based upon the traditional "Common Law" of defamation inherited from the English legal system, mixed across the states. The 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, however, radically changed the nature of libel law in the United States by establishing that public officials could win a suit for libel only when they could prove the media outlet in question knew either that the information was wholly and patently false or that it was published "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not". Later Supreme Court cases barred strict liability for libel and forbid libel claims for statements that are so ridiculous as to be patently false. Recent cases have added precedent on defamation law and the Internet.

Mike Godwin American attorney and author

Michael Wayne Godwin is an American attorney and author. He was the first staff counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and he created the Internet adage Godwin's law and the notion of an Internet meme, as reported in the October 1994 issue of Wired. From July 2007 to October 2010, he was general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation. In March 2011, he was elected to the Open Source Initiative board. Godwin has served as a contributing editor of Reason magazine since 1994. In April 2019, he was elected to the Internet Society board. He is currently general counsel and director of innovation policy at the R Street Institute.

National Portrait Gallery and Wikimedia Foundation copyright dispute

In July 2009, lawyers representing the National Portrait Gallery of London (NPG) sent an email letter warning of possible legal action for alleged copyright infringement to Derrick Coetzee, an editor/administrator of the free content multimedia repository Wikimedia Commons, hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation.

Wikipedia Seigenthaler biography incident Controversy due to a hoax in a Wikipedia article about journalist John Seigenthaler

In May 2005, an anonymous editor posted a hoax article onto Wikipedia about journalist John Seigenthaler. The article falsely stated that Seigenthaler had been a suspect in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Arthur Alan Wolk is an American attorney and author. He is the founding partner of The Wolk Law Firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which specializes in aviation law and air crash litigation for plaintiffs.

Defamation Act 2013 United Kingdom law reforming defamation law

The Defamation Act 2013 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which reformed English defamation law on issues of the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. It also comprised a response to perceptions that the law as it stood was giving rise to libel tourism and other inappropriate claims.

Theodore Katsanevas is a Greek academic and politician. He was a member of the Greek Parliament from 1989 to 2004 for the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PA.SO.K). In May 2013 he founded the political party Drachmi Greek Democratic Movement Five Stars, which campaigns for Greece to abandon the euro and return to the drachma.

Hassell v. Bird was a case heard within the California court system related to a court-ordered removal of a defamatory user review of a law firm from the Yelp website. The case, first heard in the California Court of Appeals, First District, Division Four, unanimously ruled in favor of the law firm, ordering Yelp to remove the review in 2016. Yelp refused to remove the review and appealed the decision. In July 2018, the California Supreme Court reversed the order in a closely divided 4-3 decision, stating that Yelp's position fell within Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as a publisher of user material, and was not required to comply with the trial court's removal order. However, the part of the trial court's decision that ordered the reviewer to remove the defamatory review and pay a monetary judgement were left intact. The Supreme Court of the United States denied to hear the appeal, leaving the California Supreme Court's decision.


  1. "Dealing with Wikipedia libel: why a 'self-help' remedy is often the best solution". Lexology. June 19, 2013. Retrieved February 12, 2020.
  2. "US billionaire wins high court order over Wikipedia 'defamation'". The Guardian. May 9, 2011. Archived from the original on December 2, 2016. Retrieved December 15, 2016.
  3. "U.S. Law Protects Anonymous Speech, Not Billionaires". Forbes. May 10, 2011. Archived from the original on July 30, 2017. Retrieved September 4, 2017.
  4. "A German court forced us to remove part of a Wikipedia article's 'history.' Here's what that means". Wikimedia Foundation. April 11, 2019. Archived from the original on April 14, 2019. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
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  12. "Gibson v Amazon complaint". Archived from the original on April 5, 2016. Retrieved September 9, 2017.
  13. Sylvia Scott Gibson et al v. Archived April 7, 2014, at the Wayback Machine (Document 142) on Justia
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  15. "AAFM ® Legal Complaint FOR Defamation, Libel and Fraud To Wikipedia/Wikimedia Legal Offices". AAFM. Archived from the original on June 20, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  16. Simcoe, Luke (June 25, 2014). "Canadian businessman sues Wikipedia editors for defamation". Metronews .
  17. Alfonso, Fernando III (June 24, 2014). "Wikipedia editors hit with $10 million defamation lawsuit". The Daily Dot . Retrieved May 14, 2019. Updated 11 December 2015.
  18. "Philanthropist Yank Barry prepares to bolster lawsuit against Wikipedia editors, strategically withdraws first complaint". PRNews Channel. Retrieved August 2, 2014.
  19. "Letter from FBI to Wikimedia" (PDF). July 22, 2010. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 18, 2014. Retrieved August 16, 2012.
  20. "Letter from Wikimedia to FBI" (PDF). July 30, 2010. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 18, 2014. Retrieved August 16, 2012.
  21. Schwartz, John (August 2, 2010). "F.B.I., Challenging Use of Seal, Gets Back a Primer on the Law". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 6, 2014. Retrieved August 16, 2012.
  22. Ingram, David (March 10, 2015). "NSA sued by Wikimedia, rights groups over mass surveillance". Reuters. Archived from the original on September 30, 2015. Retrieved August 28, 2015.