The Wikipedia Zeitgeist
Why Mike Godwin disowns his own content
Published in 2009 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 13, 2009
Updated on December 13, 2019
For all of its impact on popular culture, Wikimedia Foundation—whose primary product is Wikipedia, the online user-generated encyclopedia—has only a dozen or so full-time employees. Its world headquarters is a modest office anchored near the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
No less misleading is the appearance of Wikimedia’s in-house counsel, Mike Godwin. He sports casual jeans and tennis shoes and has the enthusiasm and energy of a teenager. Nothing about him suggests his impact on the electronic world.
Godwin is not a child of Silicon Valley. He’s from Texas, a fact evidenced by his occasional accent. It was in Austin, as a university student juggling a full slate of outside interests, that Godwin found his niche.
“Mike was a very intellectually active guy in his student days,” says Hugo Award-winning writer Bruce Sterling, Godwin’s friend since the 1970s. “But if you’ve ever seen the film Slacker, you see a bunch of autodidact Texan fanatics wandering the streets blathering about arcane weirdness that nobody else understands. Mike was a lot like that.”
Godwin first discovered computers—”the big iron variety”—in the mid-’70s. “A friend taught me how to sneak into the computer labs in the middle of the night and log on,” he reminisces.
Then, as a graduate student in English literature at the University of Texas at Austin, he used minicomputers while writing for The Daily Texan. “As a reporter, you had a word processor, which I got used to,” he says. “I liked puzzling out how the computers worked.”
To spend more time with the technology, he took a job as a retail computer salesman. But he set his sights elsewhere when, one day, a lawyer in a yellow paisley tie—”the dumbest guy I’d ever met,” Godwin remembers—came into the store to buy a computer. “I thought, ‘This guy is getting paid so much more than me. There’s got to be a better way.'”
So he applied to the University of Texas Law School, where he studied criminal and constitutional law. He rejoined The Daily Texan staff, and was elected editor.
Meanwhile, he dove deeper into the world of computer bulletin board systems (BBS)—online discussion forums considered “a precursor to the modern form of the World Wide Web,” according to Wikipedia—using them as a social outlet “to talk to people who weren’t lawyers or law students.”
It was through the BBS community that Godwin came across the famous raid on Steven Jackson Games, a publisher of role-playing and card games. It was a defining moment in his career.
On March 1, 1990, as part of a crackdown on computer hacking, the U.S. Secret Service raided the games publisher. “The Secret Service decided, without any real evidence, that one of the SJ Games employees was a likely computer hacker, and they seized any computer that the employee might have had access to,” he says. “As a result, their seizure essentially shut SJ Games down.”
The event would eventually produce a nonfiction book—Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown—and lead to the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to address tech-related civil liberties issues.
Godwin defended SJ Games by publicizing the incident. After finding a river of misinformation circulating the bulletin boards, he put his journalistic skills to work. “I called up a guy at the Austin American-Statesman that I knew and said, ‘I’ve got this computer crime story. Who should I take it to?'”
He was told to contact reporter Kyle Pope (recently at Condé Nast Portfolio). “I went down and met him,” recalls Godwin. “I was supposed to be studying for an ethics exam. I walked him through [the story] and gave him contacts—including contacts of people who disagreed with me on this issue.”
“I gave it to him on Tuesday,” Godwin continues. “On Friday, he publishes a 40-inch story.”
Eventually, Newsweek picked up the story, which caught the attention of Mitch Kapor, John Gilmore and John Perry Barlow, who founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They asked Godwin to be their first attorney.
As their legal counsel, Godwin tackled fledgling issues of computer crime, copyright and online free speech. “Up until the 20th century,” he says, “the incremental cost of making a copy was really high.” Today, that cost is spiraling toward zero: “Copyright pirates are much easier to spot when they’ve got factories,” he says.
Another example: “When movie companies developed a compressed file method for music,” he says, “song files became easy to share. Suddenly, all the barriers for copyright infringement fell away. The entertainment industry is frightened. What are you going to do when a 13-year-old kid figures out how to beat your [copyright protection technology]?”
In 2006, Godwin was in the middle of an 18-month stint as a research fellow at Yale University when he got reacquainted with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington, D.C. “We’d known each other casually in the ’90s,” remembers Godwin. “Jimmy had a Usenet news group that was philosophy-oriented. We’d get in arguments and stuff.”
Godwin and Wales spent some time together at the conference. “We drank in the bar, traded stories,” says Godwin. “I never anticipated that we’d be formally associated with each other.”
At the time, the Wikimedia Foundation was going through a growth period. “They were trying to become more professional,” he says. Their advisory committee suggested bringing Godwin aboard as general counsel. He took the job in July 2007, intrigued by Wikipedia’s impact on copyright liability and free speech. “We expressly disown our content,” he says. “The legal framework set up in the ’90s protects publishers from liability for content they did not produce. … The thing we set out to do philosophically—provide free content and not own it—actually provides us with a lot of legal protection.”
Since Wikipedia includes articles about people who are still living, the protection is tested often. “I do a lot of explaining,” Godwin says.
The explanation includes an invitation to join the Wikipedia community. “Add your voice to it; correct the record,” he tells critics. “We’ll show you how.”
The power of Wikipedia, and the entire Internet, is that “everyone now has a chance to correct the record. But,” he cautions, “this is such a fundamental social change that it’ll take at least a generation to get accustomed to it.”
Of course, that change is already happening. “If you’d suggested something like Wikipedia 10 years ago, you would have been laughed out of the room,” he says. “People coming together, creating anything other than chaos?”
But the digital chaos means more free speech, and Godwin is all for it.