By Dan Packel
Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit parent of Wikipedia, filed suit against Internet Brands Inc. in California state court Wednesday, responding to the website operator's recent efforts to impede the creation of a new travel wiki.
The Wikimedia Foundation contends in the suit that its decision to establish the new travel wiki is legitimate and legal and argued that a recent suit filed by Internet Brands against several of its volunteers was an unfair effort to discourage its plans. Internet Brands currently operates the website Wikitravel.
"IB's lawsuit seems an obvious attempt to intimidate both the personally named (as defendants) volunteer administrators, and other voluntary authors and administrators, by subjecting them to the prohibitive cost of defending a lawsuit," said the complaint. "IB apparently hopes that this tactic will intimidate other volunteers and thus prevent creation of a new, noncommercial travel website supported by Wikimedia."
Internet Brands, which uses Wikimedia's free open-source software MediaWiki to run Wikitravel, purchased the domain name and servers to operate the site in 2005 from the site's founders, according to the complaint.
While Internet Brands continued to rely on uncompensated user contributions as the sole source of content for Wikitravel, the volunteers who helped to create and and manage the site's content became increasingly dissatisfied with the company's operation of the site, according to the complaint.
These concerns focused on two issues, the complaint says: the lack of support and website maintenance by Internet Brands, and a sense that the company was primarily concerned with monetizing the content, which was a product of uncompensated volunteer efforts.
As a consequence of these frustrations, a Wikitravel volunteer — James Heilman — approached Wikimedia this year about the creation of a new, Wikimedia-owned travel site, according to the complaint.
The Wikimedia community then initiated a request-for-comment process aimed at gauging interest in launching a travel site under the foundation's umbrella.
As interest in the project grew, Wikivoyage — an unaffiliated travel site operated by a number of volunteers who had earlier left Wikitravel — announced in June its desire to fold its content into the Wikimedia travel site upon its launch, according to the complaint.
Then, on August 28, Internet Brands filed suit in state court in California against Heilman and Ryan Holliday, as well as an IT company purportedly run by Holliday, claiming that they had infringed Wikitravel's trademarks.
While Wikimedia's suit contends that both Holliday and Heilman were Wikitravel volunteers, the Internet Brands suit alleges that while Holliday volunteered for the site for seven years, Heilman only began posting on the site in 2012, as part of an effort to "usurp" the Wikitravel community.
Regardless of the affiliations of Holliday and Heilman, Wikimedia contends it has the right to move forward with the creation of the new travel site without intimidation from Internet Brands, whether directed at the site or its volunteers.
To this end, the foundation is seeking a declaratory judgment that Internet Brands lacks the right to impede, disrupt or block the creation of the new site and that the user-generated content on Wikitravel can be freely transferred to the new site.
Wikimedia also seeks to preserve its rights to work together with Wikitravel volunteers to potentially help transfer the content on Wikitravel to the new site.
"While the suit filed by Internet Brands does not directly name the Wikimedia Foundation as a defendant, we believe that we are the real target," said Kelly Kay, deputy general counsel for Wikimedia, in a statement on the foundation's blog Wednesday.
Representatives for the parties were not immediately available for comment Thursday.
Wikimedia is represented by Michael Rhodes, Patrick Gunn, Dylan Hale, and Ray Sardo of Cooley LLP.
Counsel information for Internet Brands was not immediately available on Thursday.
The case is Wikimedia Foundation Inc. v. Internet Brands Inc., case number CGC-12-523971, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Francisco.
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