By Nate Raymond
When Internet Brands Inc sued James Heilman and William Holliday
last month in state court in Los Angeles, not many people
noticed that the new media company had effectively launched a
war with the non-profit group behind Wikipedia. Internet Brands
didn't name Wikimedia Foundation. But its complaint alleged that
Heilman and Holliday attempted to convince users of
Wikitravel.org, which is owned by Internet Brands, to switch to
a travel guide under the auspices of Wikimedia.
Wikimedia read between the lines of the Internet Brands
lawsuit, however, and was none too pleased. On Wednesday, its
lawyers at Cooley countered with a lawsuit against Internet
Brands in San Francisco Superior Court, seeking a declaration
that any user-generated content at Wikitravel.org can be moved
to another site under the licenses that govern content on
Internet Brands' websites.
The new filing is a rare foray into litigation for
Wikimedia, which, according to a search of the Westlaw database,
has filed just one lawsuit since it was founded in 2003.
Wikimedia has said it intervened because it believed it was the
real target of the Internet Brands lawsuit and because Heilman
and Holliday are both volunteer content creators who should be
protected. "The foundation felt very strongly it needed to
intervene here and protect these two volunteers, who'd have to
pay lawyers, and secondly to protect integrity of the wiki
movement," said Wikimedia counsel Michael Rhodes of Cooley.
The foundation's suit also marks one of the few U.S. cases
centered around so-called Creative Commons copyright licenses.
According to Wikimedia's complaint, Internet Brands' site,
Wikitravel.org, has always operated under Creative Commons
licenses -- free copyright licenses that give Internet sites the
right to copy, distribute or sell content, so long as the author
is credited. Michael Carroll, a professor at American
University's Washington College of Law, said that such licenses
have been tested in litigation outside of the United States but
haven't been the subject of many U.S. court cases. "What
Wikimedia is asking is to make clear (that) the license is
bulletproof on this point," Carroll said. (Carroll is a founding
board member of Creative Commons but said he was speaking in an
The rivalry between Wikitravel.org and Wikimedia has become
increasingly intense. Internet Brands purchased Wikitravel.org
from two independent Web developers in 2005 for $1.7 million,
according to Internet Brands' complaint. According to Internet
Brands, Heilman, a member of Wikimedia Canada's board,
registered as a user at Wikitravel. A month later, he reached
out to Wikimedia about creating a new travel site, Wikimedia's
own complaint said. Wikimedia allegedly began gauging user
interest through what it called a "request for comment," asking
users if they would be interested in moving their content from
Wikitravel to a new Wikimedia website called the Wiki Travel
Guide. In June, the administrators of Wikivoyage, a site of
users who had broken away from Wikitravel, voted to fold its
content into the new Wikimedia site, and in the interim,
Wikivoyage's site is being used for the "migration," according
to an online FAQ.
The cross-complaints make it clear that Internet Brands and
Wikimedia don't see eye-to-eye about money. Though the two
engaged in talks about a collaboration, Wikimedia said it balked
when Internet Brands suggested a new wiki travel site that would
be run as a "semi for-profit" company. Internet Brands'
complaint said that it refused Wikimedia's request to "donate"
the Wikitravel website. The Internet Brands suit accused Heilman
and Holliday, a Wikitravel administrator who allegedly
encouraged users to migrate to the new Wikimedia-backed website,
of trademark infringement, unfair competition and civil
Wikimedia intervened because it believes it is the real
target, according to a blog post by the foundation's deputy
general counsel, Kelly Kay. "Our community and potential new
community members are key to the success of all of our
projects," she wrote. "We will steadfastly and proudly defend
our community's right to free speech, and we will support these
volunteer community members in their legal defense."
In a statement Thursday, Internet Brands said it "has been a
tireless supporter of free speech, open discourse and community
publishing." The company said it had spent millions of dollars
developing the Wikitravel website and believed its intellectual
property rights had been violated. An Internet Brands spokesman
said the company was retaining counsel to defend it in
Wikimedia's lawsuit. Its Los Angeles case is being handled by
Wendy Giberti of iGeneral Counsel.
Follow us on Twitter @AlisonFrankel, @nateraymond, @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook