Wikipedia and the courts

Recently there has been a fair amount of controversy on the reliability of the well-known open source project known as Wikipedia. [See, e.g., here and here.] Although not everyone is convinced that Wikipedia can be trusted to always tell the truth, it is interesting to note that in the past year or so several courts, including more than one federal circuit court, have cited to it to fill in background facts relevant to cases before them. Here are some examples, and the terms or facts elaborated therein:

  • M.K. Plastics Corp. v. Rossi, — N.E.2d —-, 2005 WL 3358644 (Ind.App., December 12, 2005) — “AutoCAD”
  • State v. Kante, 2005 WL 3115377 (Table, Text in WESTLAW), (Iowa App., November 23, 2005). — “French is the official language of the Republic of Guinea.”
  • Neeley v. West Orange-Cove Consol. Independent School Dist., — S.W.3d —-, 2005 WL 3116298, (Tex., November 22, 2005) — “Efficiency”
  • Allegheny Defense Project, Inc. v. U.S. Forest Service, 423 F.3d 215, (3rd Cir., September 15, 2005) — “Understory”
  • U.S. v. Krueger, 415 F.3d 766, (7th Cir., July 28, 2005) — “Shake”
  • Amco Ukrservice & Prompriladamco v. American Meter Co., 2005 WL 1541029, (E.D.Pa., Jun 29, 2005) — “Sea of Okhotsk”
  • Patel v. Shah, 2004 WL 2930914, (Nonpublished/Noncitable) (Cal.App. 4 Dist., Dec 17, 2004) — “Simple majority”
  • Bourgeois v. Peters, 387 F.3d 1303, (11th Cir., October 15, 2004) — “Homeland Security Advisory System”

At least one court, however, has noted the risk of error in relying on an open source project, and refused to consider what Wikipedia had to say. The Tennessee Court of Appeals noted:

Given the fact that this source is open to virtually anonymous editing by the general public, the expertise of its editors is always in question, and its reliability is indeterminable. Accordingly, we do not find that it constitutes persuasive authority. [English Mountain Spring Water Co. v. Chumley, 2005 WL 2756072 (Tenn.Ct.App., October 25, 2005).]

The English Mountain court apparently took this whole notion of reliability pretty seriously. It wouldn’t even take Wikipedia’s word for it that “bottled water” is a “beverage.”

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4 thoughts on “Wikipedia and the courts

  1. Frolic

    Yikes, that’s really scary. It shows what a poor job colleges are doing teaching kids how to be skeptical about internet sources. They form these bad habits as undergrad and then carry them on to their clerkships.

  2. Colette

    That’s interesting. I’ve noticed parties citing to wikipedia in briefs and elsewhere too, and while some wikipedia pages provide a wealth of useful information, I don’t see how the courts can legitimately rely on it as factual for most purposes. This reminds me a bit of my former patent litigation experience and the use of dictionary definitions by courts in claim construction.

  3. yclipse

    For factual matters regarding things that are not central to the issue and not reasonably in dispute, why not?

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