The whole debate over whether or not Wikia’s Jimmy Wales should be referred to as the “co-founder” of Wikipedia, along with Dr. Larry Sanger, has always been more than a little amusing. Mr. Wales was the CEO of Bomis, Inc., the pornographic link-farm site/company that employed Sanger to develop an online encyclopedia project from January 2000 to March 2002. As such, Mr. Wales now assumes - perhaps rightly - that he can legally declare anything produced by Sanger during that time to be a “work for hire,” and therefore take sole credit for it. After all, money talks; employees simply get laid off.
Meanwhile, since speaker’s fees evidently make up a large portion of Mr. Wales’ personal income, the reduction in status he could suffer by being commonly referred to as merely the “co-founder” of Wikipedia might make him a less marketable commodity on the lecture circuit. Yikes! Without these fees, Mr. Wales might have to rely on his income as CEO of Wikia, Inc. just to survive - clearly not an attractive prospect, given the nature of Wikia’s business model.
But why all the fuss over one word, “co-founder,” when that word isn’t even accurate in referring to either of these two giants of unpaid-volunteer online content aggregation? Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned to use a term that’s more descriptive of what these two men actually did, like “co-instigator,” “co-conspirator,” or “co-defiler of Western educational traditions”? At least that way, there wouldn’t be all this petty sniping, since presumably there would be less objection to sharing such a title in the first place.
Then again, if people would just use accurate terminology to describe Wikipedia itself (i.e., Multi-User Dungeon, rather than “encyclopedia”), maybe this entire dispute would be unnecessary.
It’s high time these two men reconciled their differences and agreed on a term that more closely resembles the truth. Unfortunately, this is Wikipedia we’re dealing with, so nobody cares much about truth - they care about “verifiability,” or more accurately, “the ability to select and manipulate online sources in support of one’s personal agenda.” So if anyone on Wikipedia wants to use this blog post as verification that the whole business is both silly and misleading, please, by all means, go ahead!
The issue has arisen again because on August 6, 2002, Jimmy Wales (or someone calling himself “Jimmy Wales” - remember, this is the interwebs) posted something about his later-abandoned “3apes” project to the “xopd” forum on Yahoo! Groups. For background, the acronym “ODP” refers to Netscape’s Open Directory Project, more commonly known as “DMOZ” (or “Directory Mozilla”), and “XOPD” evidently refers to the general effort to critique it, and suggest possibilities for replacing it or improving upon it. This post was only noticed about a week ago, having apparently been forgotten during the intervening years:
Hello, let me introduce myself.
I’m Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Nupedia and Wikipedia, the open content encyclopedias…
Interestingly, only a month later on Sept. 13, 2002, Wales had already dropped the prefix “co-” in his postings to this particular discussion group, and added “leader” for good measure:
By way of background, I am the founder and leader of http://www.wikipedia.org/, which I am fairly certain is the largest single free content or “open content” project.
Someone must have informed Mr. Wales of the “work-for-hire” provisions in the 1976 US Copyright Act shortly after the first post, then.
Earlier today (April 8, 2009), Mr. Wales rather absurdly referred to his use of the term “co-founder” in the first post as a “typo.” Shortly thereafter, Dr. Sanger posted a note to Mr. Wales’ Wikipedia talk page regarding the situation, and as the material is not likely to survive long there, we’ve taken the liberty of copying it, in full, here. And, as Dr. Sanger tells us (emphasis mine):
These are only some examples of ways in which I led the project in its first 14 months; after I left, there was a lot of soul-searching in the project about what would happen now that it was “leaderless” (see the quotations linked from this page). When I was involved in the project, I was regarded as its chief organizer. As you can still see in the archives, I called myself “Chief Instigator” and “Chief Organizer” and the like (not editor).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sanger would object to Mr. Wales’ clearly deceptive and self-serving use of the term “founder,” but would it really be so unpleasant for both Dr. Sanger and Mr. Wales to go back to the original title of “Instigator,” and then have both of them agree to share that title instead? It makes a lot more sense than continuing all this needless backbiting, surely?
Of course, the money angle would still be a problem, and perhaps an insurmountable one. After all, if you follow the XOPD discussions over the subsequent several days, you might stumble across this post:
As to becoming a major web property like Yahoo, I like the sound of that, but really, don’t you have a long long way to go? And aren’t we all lacking a few hundred million dollars to promote ourselves into that position?
Possibly if the dot-com boom comes back bigtime, we can do that. But in the meantime, it’s a good thing to think about how to get from here to there, and I think that free content is a great mechanism for upstart competitors to overcome the advantages of entrenched competitors with proprietary content.