In Wikipedia's case, the gripe is about the site Wikipediaart.org -- created by artists Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern. Before they launched wikipediaart.org, they had attempted to create a page on Wikipedia for art that could be edited by community members. Wikipedia administrators quickly deleted the page within hours of its launch on Feb. 14.
The following month, Kildall and Stern launched the new site, wikipediaart.org. The Wikimedia Foundation's attorney responded by sending a letter to Kildall on March 23 asking him to transfer the domain name wikipediaart.org to the Wikimedia Foundation. The foundation's attorney also said that Wikimedia owned the trademark to that term, and that he had been asked to investigate whether the artists violated the foundation's trademark rights.
The artists objected to transferring the domain name, but added a disclaimer to the site saying that it isn't affiliated with Wikipedia. The company's general counsel, Mike Godwin, posted a note to a public forum last week saying the company was pleased by the disclaimer, and that no "litigation was threatened or commenced."
But the site still has not withdrawn its original letter, meaning that the site remains in a legal limbo.
But digital rights groups seemed surprised by the stance taken by Wikipedia -- which itself relies on a liberal definition of fair use to draw on other companies' intellectual property. "We're frankly disappointed to see it go down this path and hope this particular page of Wikipedia history is quickly revised by the Wikipedian powers that be," wrote Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Corynne McSherry in a blog post.
The artists' attorney, Paul Alan Levy of consumer rights group Public Citizen, added that this type of takedown demand is "par for the course" for some companies, but that he hadn't expected it of Wikipedia. "I'm sad to see that Wikipedia did this," Levy said. He has successfully represented a host of people in trademark disputes, including Wal-Mart critic Charles Smith, who created the unflattering sites walocaust.com and walqaeda.com.
"People send out demand letters and hope, because it's cheaper than a lawsuit, that it will succeed," he said. "They tried to intimidate the artists and might have gotten away with it if the artists had to pay for their own defense."