July 09, 2007

Wikipedia, "Lava Lamp", Trademark threats

Background: The Wikipedia article on "Lava Lamp" disappeared for two weeks, apparently due to some legal bluster about the words being trademarked. The Register ran a story about it - Brit fumes over Wikipedia, lava lamps:

Barberio acknowledges there will be cases where OTRS [complaint-handling] volunteers would be justified in keeping a complaint secret. If a person claims they're being libeled by a Wikipedia article, for instance, it stands to reason their identity shouldn't be divulged. But this was far from the case with the lava lamp article. Wales insisted that the reason for suppressing the article was posted to its "talk" page, but there doesn't seem to be a link between those discussions and the OTRS action.

Value-add: Wales posted to a Wikipedia mailing list:

Of course, in this case, the entire complaint is right there on the talk page for anyone to see, so it is pretty hard to see how much MORE of an explanation could be given.

I told The Register this quite plainly, which they admit:
"Wales insisted that the reason for suppressing the article was posted to its "talk" page, but there doesn't seem to be a link between those discussions and the OTRS action."

That's total bullshit of course. I can tell you, having seen the OTRS ticket, and talked to the person who did the blanking, that there is an EXACT link between those discussions and the OTRS action. Not that the Register ever cared to report things fairly.

While technically, he's correct, I think there's a problem with severe underestimation of the amount of effort required for a non-insider to figure out the connections in Wikipedia. I wouldn't get worked up over the specifics of this incident myself, filing it under "silly lawyer tricks". But it is an interesting little example of problems of fathoming even minor disputes.

That is, instead of a straightforward "This article temporarily gone because of legal dispute over trademark issues", there's some verbiage about "Open Ticket Request System ticket # 2007052310014607." You think, what in the world is that? And it seems mere morals can't see it anyway. Then you get pointed to the "talk" page, which has a huge amount of trivial discussion to plow through, before you get to the reason buried down in the page. I pity anyone trying to make sense of it. Especially someone who doesn't have a practiced eye in reading those sorts of pages so as to know what's chatter, and what's a legal issue serious enough to cause the article to be removed pending resolution.

The lesson, as I see it, is another proof that Wikipedia is a badly-run bureaucracy. But I'm talking to the crickets again.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on July 09, 2007 11:47 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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If it's any consolation, there's been a lot of chatter internally about this whole incident, as well. There's two involved factors that seem to be rather under-reported: first, the OTRS volunteer who blanked the article is quite new, and has gotten a lot of good-natured ribbing over his handling of the incident; second, at the time this all happened, the Wikimedia Foundation was without a legal counsel (our last one retired recently), and so there was no obvious person "up the chain" to field legal complaints of this nature.

Although two weeks of the article about lava lamps is hardly a blip, in the long run, I do think some excellent points have been made, regarding Wikipedia's communications inadequacies, both by yourself and by a number of others I've read or discussed this with.

Anyhow, nice post, I'm glad Google Alerts noticed it. Cheers.

Posted by: Luna Santin at July 10, 2007 02:34 AM

So what if the words 'Lava lamp' are trademarked?

All that means is that 1) they shouldn't be used to identify a product that isn't authorised by the trademark owner to be so identified, and 2) the trademark should be noted as a being a trademark.

This does not preclude an encyclopaedia having an article on 'Lava lamps', i.e. those products authorised to be named as such by the trademark owner.

I think 'mere morals' can see things clearly.

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch at July 10, 2007 04:21 AM

I should add that such an article could still discuss and describe 'similar lamps' and even mention that similar lamps sometimes misrepresented themselves as Lava lamps.

And of course, if a trademark owner attempts to overreach their trademark and suppress discussion of their products (along with those of their competitors), well, let the gloves come off...

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch at July 10, 2007 04:27 AM

I thought the "mere morals" typo was funny (Freudian slip?) even though someone else spotted it first :)

Posted by: Bennett Haselton at July 10, 2007 06:47 AM

This relates to one of my biggest complaints about Wikipedia - the amount of policy discussion (and "consensus building") that occurs off the website and on various e-mail lists. I don't have the time to subscribe and sift through any more e-mail lists, and I think its disingenuous to expect editors to have to follow all these off-site discussions. Any policy debate or attempt at consensus must occur in public on the openly accessible website, not on a mailing list (or - good good - IRC) that someone has to subscribe to. Case in point: the whole WP:ATTRIBUTION kerfuffle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Attribution)

Posted by: Michael Zimmer at July 10, 2007 08:27 AM

Luna: Right, I don't fault the volunteer for taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach here. It's the aftermath, the maze of twisty little discussion pages, that strikes me as the bureaucratic problem.

Crosbie: Trademark lawyers can get very litigious. They're often trained that way.

Bennett: I think I'll leave the typo :-)

Michael: My impression is that much of key Wikipedia policy is in fact decided at private meetings. "Consensus" exists only to the extent that the power-brokers agree with it.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at July 10, 2007 01:36 PM

The crickets are still fond of you!

Posted by: Jason Scott at July 12, 2007 04:58 AM