wikipedia, legal authority and facts

I was in the middle of writing yet another half-finished post (this one on Groupon, in case you were wondering) when I was distracted by a tweet from Barry Sookman on how a court determined that Wikipedia is not a legal authority in US courts, which then pointed to a brief blog entry written by Peter Vogels. In it, he concludes with this statement:

Even though the Smithsonian Institution is now teaming up with Wikipedia that does not validate Wikipedia postings for the Courts. As time moves on Wikipedia may be a reliable source for the Courts, but when is still unpredictable.

which I interpreted as disappointment with the court’s ruling, at least as far as Wikipedia goes. This piqued my interest a bit, so I took at look at the order (PDF – which Mr. Vogels was kind enough to link to in his entry). The operative paragraph was set out in the following footnote in the order:

4The court notes here that defense counsel appears to have cobbled much of his statementof the law governing ineffective assistance of counsel claims by cutting and pasting, without citation, from the Wikipedia web site. Compare Supplemental to Motion for New Trial (DN 199)at 18–19 with (last visited Feb. 9, 2011).The court reminds counsel that such cutting and pasting, without attribution, is plagiarism. Thecourt also brings to counsel’s attention Rule 8.4 of the Kentucky Rules of Professional Conduct, which states that it is professional misconduct for an attorney to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” SCR 3.130(c). See also In re Burghoff, 374 B.R.681 (Bankr. N.D. Iowa 2007) (holding that counsel’s plagiarism violated identical provision of Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct). Finally, the court reminds counsel that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source of legal authority in the United States District Courts.

This, in turn, was a footnote to the following sentence in the order:

The defendant claims that she must be granted a new trial because the representation she received was so deficient as to violate the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.4

I’m not sure the statement of the court above  is necessarily as unfortunate as it sounds. Legal authority is usually used to describe “reporters” – specific publications that publish court decisions. Some are “official”, as in they are approved in some way by the courts, while others, which are still accepted by the courts, are not. These reporters, as far as I am aware, take great care to ensure that decisions are published completely and accurately. They are typically well known by lawyers and judges, so that anyone given a reference to a particular case using a particular citation will be assured that it will be identical, down to the page, of anyone else looking at that citation. For example, R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295 will allow any lawyer or judge to look up the case described in a specific reporter.

If I’m interpreting the above correctly, the judge seems to be suggesting that the lawyer in question basically tried to rip-off arguments in another case without acknowledging that they came from another case (or rather the Wikipedia entry for the case) – at least for all of the footnote other than the last sentence.

That last sentence, however, I think speaks only to legal authority in the sense I’ve described above. Or at least I hope it does, because that would be a sensible thing to say – after all, the full text of decisions are not published on Wikipedia but rather summaries which are editable by users. And when it comes to citing past decisions as the basis for coming to a new judicial decision, it is probably important to have some degree of reliability, immutability and consistency for your sources. Or perhaps stated simply, lawyers shouldn’t be providing a link to Wikipedia when they’re citing a case as precedent – they should be citing authoritative reporters.

This should be distinguished, I think, from more general use of Wikipedia by the courts to refer to factual matters, which an article in the New York Times summarized the current perspectives quite well. The article in particular noted a case where a US court had rejected references to Wikipedia:

When a court-appointed special master last year rejected the claim of an Alabama couple that their daughter had suffered seizures after a vaccination, she explained her decision in part by referring to material from articles in Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia.

The reaction from the court above her, the United States Court of Federal Claims, was direct: the materials “culled from the Internet do not — at least on their face — meet” standards of reliability. The court reversed her decision.

Oddly, to cite the “pervasive, and for our purposes, disturbing series of disclaimers” concerning the site’s accuracy, the same Court of Federal Claims relied on an article called “Researching With Wikipedia” found — where else? — on Wikipedia. (The family has reached a settlement, their lawyer said.)

The article does go on, however, to identify a number of instances where Wikipedia had been accepted by other courts, sometimes for rather important facts, which has been criticized by some:

In a recent letter to The New York Law Journal, Kenneth H. Ryesky, a tax lawyer who teaches at Queens College and Yeshiva University, took exception to the practice, writing that “citation of an inherently unstable source such as Wikipedia can undermine the foundation not only of the judicial opinion in which Wikipedia is cited, but of the future briefs and judicial opinions which in turn use that judicial opinion as authority.”

while others have been less harsh:

For now, Professor Gillers said, Wikipedia is best used for “soft facts” that are not central to the reasoning of a decision. All of which leads to the question, if a fact isn’t central to a judge’s ruling, why include it?

“Because you want your opinion to be readable,” said Professor Gillers. “You want to apply context. Judges will try to set the stage. There are background facts. You don’t have to include them. They are not determinitive. But they help the reader appreciate the context.”

I guess my point in all of the above is that I’d be inclined to agree that Wikipedia shouldn’t be used at all to cite legal authority (assuming of course I’m properly interpreting what the court meant), without of course discounting the desirability of perhaps replacing (or supplementing) the rather antiquated, primarily paper-oriented system of legal authority with more modern, internet-accessible means of publication. Conversely, I would think that references to Wikipedia for factual matters should perhaps be a bit more flexible, and I don’t think this particular order  rules that possibility out.

do lawyers own their pleadings?

Very interesting (at least to lawyers) post on Slaw about a class action proceeding against Thomson Reuters. In short Thomson has started offering a service where it charges a fee to access a database comprised of pleadings filed by lawyers in court.

Raises a whole number of issues, both in respect of the ownership of the materials themselves and what implied licenses, if any, are being granted by lawyers in filing them with the court, whether to the court, participants in the court and the general public, as well as copyright not necessarily in the materials but the database created by Thomson (which of course in and of itself has value).

Not the first time it’s happened. There was a claim by Milberg Weiss (or at least the threat of a claim) a few years ago. Not sure what happened with it.

norwich orders, part ii (an editorial of sorts)


I was a bit surprised to find this article that covered the court orders that had required Google to disclose information on some Gmail users and the subsequent orders in Canada against certain Canadian ISPs, which was the subject of a previous post. The long and short of it is that the author considers Norwich orders to be some sort of grave, grave intrusion on privacy rights and personal liberty. Hence, this dire warning at the end of the article:

No matter how many precautions we take to remain private or cloak our identity, the authorities and other potential litigants usually have little difficulty obtaining this content. And they do it not by nefarious mean like hacking, but through our very own court system.

Internet users everywhere would do well to take heed. Your emails — and maybe even your Google searches — could be one subpoena away from the prying eyes of federal authorities, not to mention private litigants.

Why am I surprised? Because it seems to lack the most basic understanding of the legal system. I won’t get into all the details of the workings of Norwich orders – the original article by Omar Ha-Redeye that I had previously mentioned does a very good job at that, and I would certainly commend it to the author of this article so he may perhaps gain some insight.

The fact of the matter is that no, your privacy rights and right to anonymity have not suddenly disappeared altogether. However, as with all rights there are limitations. Thus, while U.S. citizens have the right to bear arms, they do not have the right to shoot people. If someone were to do that, they should reasonably expect their gun (and likely their liberty) to be taken away. Similarly, if someone uses their right to anonymity in an attempt to commit a crime or harm someone else, they should reasonably expect that right of anonymity to be taken away – at least to the extent it relates to the crime.

Remarkably, the author seems to suggest that the use of “subpoenas” (presumably he meant to refer to the Norwich orders) are almost the equivalent of, say, parking tickets, that the authorities or litigants can simply write up  if and when they choose to stomp on someone’s personal liberties for no good reason. What an unfortunate misperception of the legal system. The very reason why someone must go to the courts to obtain such as order is to ensure that the interests of the parties involved are balanced and safeguarded. If someone seeking the order does not have a reasonable and valid basis for doing so, it is likely that the order would not issue.

Regarding process, he cites Eric Goldman:

“People need to know that very little information that they give or make available to third parties [like Google] is unavailable to the government or private litigants,” says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law. “I think most people are surprised at how relatively easy it is for the government and private litigants to obtain ‘their’ information.”

I can’t speak to the process in the U.S. or what Mr. Goldman considers to be “relatively easy”. What I can say is that in Canada there is reasonable due process and consideration before such orders are issued. Just to cite one part of Mr. Redeye’s article:

A Norwich order is a pre-action discovery mechanism that is described by Spence J. in Isofoton S.A. v. The Toronto-Dominion Bank,

Requests for Norwich relief are largely unfamiliar to Canadian courts.  A Norwich order essentially compels a third party to provide the applicant with information where the applicant believes it has been wronged and needs the third party’s assistance to determine the circumstances of the wrongdoing and allow the applicant to pursue its legal remedies.

The 5 elements identified in this case for granting such an order include:

(i) Whether the applicant has provided evidence sufficient to raise a valid, bona fide or reasonable claim;
(ii) Whether the applicant has established a relationship with the third party from whom the information is sought such that it establishes that the third party is somehow involved in the acts complained of;
(iii) Whether the third party is the only practicable source of the information available;
(iv) Whether the third party can be indemnified for costs to which the third party may be exposed because of the disclosure, some [authorities] refer to the associated expenses of complying with the orders, while others speak of damages; and
(v) Whether the interests of justice favour the obtaining of disclosure.
[emphasis added]

The privacy interests of the alleged wrongdoer were overcome by the last element, the interests of justice, because of the applicant’s equitable right to information.  Spence J. pointed to Alberta v. Leahy and Bankers Trust Orders (from Bankers Trust Co. v. Shapira) indicating that court orders can override confidential information, even for financial records, and Glaxo-Wellcome PLC v. M.N.R. that the privacy interests of alleged wrongdoers is somewhat diminished.

Perhaps its just me, but this doesn’t sound particularly easy.

Of course, as with most things, the legal system is certainly not perfect, and there may well be instances where abuses might occur, or wrong decisions might be made by the courts where the scales of justice tip a bit. But to point at the sky and say it’s falling because of this case seems to me to be somewhat premature, to say the least.

Or at very least, as far as privacy concerns go, consider focusing more on things like the NSA and TIA than the courts.


after one gpl body blow, skype yells uncle

As most of you probably know, there has been a case that just went to court earlier today in Germany on the GPL. It had been described by Harald Welte as one of the more time consuming cases he has worked on. For those of you not familiar with him, Mr. Welte founded, an organization that helps to enforce the provisions of the GPL.

Skype had apparently used certain elements of the Linux kernel in its WiFi phones without complying with the GPL, and was set to challenge the validity of the GPL based on its alleged contraventions of German legislation – in particular anti-trust legislation. It would be interesting to see the analysis in that regard, particularly on the anti-trust front, but so far I’ve not been able to get my hands on a translated copy of the pleadings – if anyone knows where to locate, do let me know.

Anyway, apparently, they didn’t get too far. According to the entry in Harald Welte’s blog, apart from the validity of such claims, the somewhat ironic result to which the court alluded at the hearing is that if Skype were able to successfully assert the invalidity of the license, then it would also be difficult for them to claim any right to use the impugned code. Makes sense. Invalid license = no use rights.

After the court suggested that Skype’s likelihood of success would be low, Skype apparently threw in the towel in such a manner that they would not be able to revisit it further, effectively giving the victory to Welte.

I find the case and Skype’s litigation strategy somewhat puzzling, both given the decision in the 2006 D-Link case, also in Germany and the relative costs of litigation in comparison to compliance. That being said, I haven’t been able to obtain much in the way of original documentation regarding the particular GPL violations that Skype allegedly committed. Presumably, Skype went down a path in its use of GPL code that would result in it incurring significant expenses (or facing significant risk, of some sort – perhaps exposure of their own proprietary IP?) if they were required to comply after the fact. Presumably, they would not have found themselves in this situation if they had turned their mind toward structuring their use of GPL code appropriately, by either ensuring they could comply in a cost-effective manner, or not using the GPL code.

arbitrary electronic search & seizure + us border = ok

I imagine its not much of a surprise given the current environment in the states (as well as, to some extent, similar past rulings in the US). Wired reports arbitrary searches of electronics are OK:

Federal agents at the border do not need any reason to search through travelers’ laptops, cell phones or digital cameras for evidence of crimes, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, extending the government’s power to look through belongings like suitcases at the border to electronics.

Needless to say, consideration should be given to taking some steps to protect confidential or sensitive records that you would not want to be seized. And no, I don’t mean nudie pictures or the like, but things such as confidential information of your business, or that of third parties who have entrusted you with confidential information, or personal information. That being said, Wired also made this observation:

The 9th’s ruling did not, however, clarify whether a traveler has to help the government search his computer, by providing the login information, or what would happen when the government decided to search a laptop with encrypted data on the drive. The defendant in the case can appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court is unlikely to take up an issue that two separate appeals courts have agreed upon.

Alternatively, better to leave all sensitive data at the office and, if required, connect through a VPN, retrieve, then erase before crossing.

Well, at least we can thank our stars that the ruling doesn’t apply to “highly intrusive searches of the person”. Yet.

Update: The EFF has published an article on possible ways to minimize the risk of laptop searches. They point out that encryption might not be all that handy:

If, however, you don’t respond to CBP’s demands, the agency does have the authority to search, detain, and even prohibit you from entering the county. CBP has more authority to turn non-citizens away than it does to exclude U.S. persons from entering the country, but we don’t know how the agents are allowed to use this authority to execute searches or get access to password protected information. CBP also has the authority to seize your property at the border. Agents cannot seize anything they like (for example, your wedding ring), but we do not know what standards agents are told to follow to determine whether they can and should take your laptop but let you by.

Elaborating on my suggested approach, they point out the following:

Another option is to bring a clean laptop and get the information you need over the internet once you arrive at your destination, send your work product back, and then delete the data before returning to the United States. Historically, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) generally prohibited warrantless interception of this information exchange. However, the Protect America Act amended FISA so that surveillance of people reasonably believed to be located outside the United States no longer requires a warrant. Your email or telnet session can now be intercepted without a warrant. If all you are concerned about is keeping border agents from rummaging through your revealing vacation photos, you may not care. If you are dealing with trade secrets or confidential client data, an encrypted VPN is a better solution.

Anyway, worth a read if you do cross the border with sensitive information.

Another update: More advice from Bruce Schneier on how to deal with customs (both in the US and elsewhere) and also safeguard sensitive information. I particularly like this suggestion (which he offers after also suggesting the VPN approach that I mentioned above) though it does require a little white lie:

If you can’t [use a clean laptop and download via secure VPN], consider putting your sensitive data on a USB drive or even a camera memory card: even 16GB cards are reasonably priced these days. Encrypt it, of course, because it’s easy to lose something that small. Slip it in your pocket, and it’s likely to remain unnoticed even if the customs agent pokes through your laptop. If someone does discover it, you can try saying: “I don’t know what’s on there. My boss told me to give it to the head of the New York office.” If you’ve chosen a strong encryption password, you won’t care if he confiscates it.

Further update: US customs, presumably emboldened by the court’s decision, have published their official policy (PDF) describing arbitrary search. The good news is that the reaction, at least in some corners, is somewhat less than favourable. From a recent article in the Washington Post:

“The policies . . . are truly alarming,” said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who is probing the government’s border search practices. He said he intends to introduce legislation soon that would require reasonable suspicion for border searches, as well as prohibit profiling on race, religion or national origin.

There’s also some description of what the good folks at Customs would do, including treatment of privileged materials, etc. If you frequently travel to the US with sensitive business materials, you would do well to review the policy. I may post a summary at some point…

Also, another less than enthusiastic op-ed piece in USA Today.

the (not so) long arm of the tax authorities

The recent case involving the Canada Revenue Agency and eBay took an interesting (and perhaps somewhat ironic) twist on access to information. Without getting into too much detail, the essence of the issue was this: CRA wanted eBay Canada to cough up information on folks known as “Power Sellers” – those that sell a lot of stuff on eBay. Presumably so that CRA could helpfully remind those folks of their tax obligations in the unfortunate event they somehow forgot to report all the income they made in Canada by selling on eBay.

eBay Canada’s response was that the legal entity in Canada did not in fact own that information and it was also not stored in Canada. Rather, the information was owned by some of its affiliates and stored in the US, outside of Canadian jurisdiction. So they couldn’t provide the information, they asserted.

Unfortunately (for eBay) it came out that eBay Canada was able to access the information even though it didn’t own the data. In fact, it had to be able to access that information in order to run its business. So the court ruled in favour of the CRA, with this rather cogent analysis:

The issue as to the reach of section 231.2 when information, though stored electronically outside Canada, is available to and used by those in Canada, must be approached from the point of view of the realities of today’s world. Such information cannot truly be said to “reside” only in one place or be “owned” by only one person. The reality is that the information is readily and instantaneously available to those within the group of eBay entities in a variety of places. It is irrelevant where the electronically-stored information is located or who as among those entities, if any, by agreement or otherwise asserts “ownership” of the information. It is “both here and there” to use the words of Justice Binnie in Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada v. Canadian Ass’n of Internet Providers, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 427 at paragraph 59. It is instructive to review his reasons, for the Court, at paragraphs 57 to 63 in dealing with whether jurisdiction may be exercised in Canada respecting certain Internet communications, including an important reference to Libman v. The Queen, [1985] 2 SCR 178 and the concept of a “real and substantial link”.

The implications in this case are relatively clear. In other cases, it may become less so. For example, what happens with this concept when someone who once stored their docs on their local hard drive starts using Google Docs, only to find out that the authorities in whatever far-flung jurisdiction have ordered an affiliate of Google to disclose that information? Or in the near future when things like Prism get to a point where users aren’t even sure whether their data is here, there, or elsewhere. Interesting times, indeed.

first us gpl lawsuit filed

Surprising. I’ve read about cases going to court in Europe and naturally assumed, given the litigious environment of the US, that something had happened long ago stateside. So, I was a bit surprised to hear about the first GPL lawsuit down there.

For the first time in the U.S., a company and software vendor, Monsoon Multimedia, is being taken to court for a GPL violation. Previously, alleged GPL violations have all been settled by letters from the FSF (Free Software Foundation) or other open-source organizations, pointing out the violation. (Linux Watch)

Hmmm. Maybe not – recent news is that they’re now in settlement discussions. In any event, this gives me yet another excuse to rant, once again, about open source software, or for that matter, any third party code that companies out there may wish to use or build into their products.

As some of you may know, I personally quite like open source stuff. In fact, this blog is written using a giant truckload of the stuff, which works remarkably well for something developed by folks who aren’t paid (for the most part) to develop any of it. Open source can also be a great asset to many companies out there, whether in use or in development.

BUT (and surely you must be expecting a but by now), to the extent you are going to develop with open source code, public domain code or for that matter ANY third party code, you absolutely, positively, MUST keep track of it and make sure you use it both in compliance with the terms under which it is licensed and: (a) make sure the license terms are appropriate for the intended purpose; and (b) make sure you comply with the license terms.

Why is (a) important? To give a very simply illustration, if you plan on building a company whose primary asset and value is based on closed and (ostensibly) proprietary code, you should not be putting GPL code into your product, since one of the requirements of doing so would be an obligation to make your code publicly available on the same terms. This is probably a vast oversimplification of the terms of the GPL but I hope it illustrates the point. And if you don’t think this is likely to have an impact on your company, well, think again. Regardless of what you may think about (b) (which we’ll be getting to in a second), a potential acquiror of your company may feel quite differently about the risks of unintended use of open source code if, for example, it has been told your product is proprietary. And they definitely will find out about it. In fact, there are very, very effective tools to do so, like the one provided by Black Duck. And it is becoming a rather normal practice in acquisition due diligence to run code through Black Duck or something similar if there is the possibility of undisclosed open source.

Why is (b) important? Well, in addition to what’s described above, there is a real risk associated with contravening the GPL, the LPGL or other open source licenses. Just because its free does not mean that someone will not invest the time and effort to find out about contraventions of such licenses and make sure their terms are complied with, including the Software Freedom Law Center. In addition to institutions like those, there are also many, many folks out there keeping an eye out for possible breaches of GPL and reporting them to bodies like the SFLC.

All that being said, I should make it clear that I do think that open source software does have a place in profit-driven companies, as do open source development models. JBoss, MySQL, and Sleepycat are just a few in the latter category that have been quite successful. The key of course, is to make sure that how you use those tools works consistently both with your intended business model and with the terms under which apply to their use. Which will be a good topic for another day.

silly lawsuit of the week

OK. Short version of the story in InformationWeek: Woman puts up a website. She puts a “webwrap” agreement at the bottom – i.e. basically a contract that says if you use the site then you agree to the contract. Still some question as to whether such a mechanism is binding, but anyway…

So the Internet Archive of course comes along and indexes her site. Which apparently is a violation of the webwrap. So she sues, representing herself, I believe. The court throws out everything on a preliminary motion by IA except for the breach of contract.

InformationWork observes that “Her suit asserts that the Internet Archive’s programmatic visitation of her site constitutes acceptance of her terms, despite the obvious inability of a Web crawler to understand those terms and the absence of a robots.txt file to warn crawlers away.” (my emphasis). They then conclude with this statement:

If a notice such as Shell’s is ultimately construed to represent just such a “meaningful opportunity” to an illiterate computer, the opt-out era on the Net may have to change. Sites that rely on automated content gathering like the Internet Archive, not to mention Google, will have to convince publishers to opt in before indexing or otherwise capturing their content. Either that or they’ll have to teach their Web spiders how to read contracts.

(my emphasis).

They already have – sort of. It’s called robots.txt – the thing referred to above. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, its a little file that you put on the top level of your site and which is the equivalent of a “no soliciation” sign on your door. Its been around for at least a decade (probably longer) and most (if not all) search engines

From the Internet Archive’s FAQ:

How can I remove my site’s pages from the Wayback Machine?

The Internet Archive is not interested in preserving or offering access to Web sites or other Internet documents of persons who do not want their materials in the collection. By placing a simple robots.txt file on your Web server, you can exclude your site from being crawled as well as exclude any historical pages from the Wayback Machine.

Internet Archive uses the exclusion policy intended for use by both academic and non-academic digital repositories and archivists. See our exclusion policy.

You can find exclusion directions at exclude.php. If you cannot place the robots.txt file, opt not to, or have further questions, email us at info at archive dot org.

standardized methods of communications – privacy policies, etc. – more. Question is, will people be required to use it, or simply disregard and act dumb?

Wikiality – Part II

There was some traffic on the ULC E-Comm Listserv (on which I surreptitiously lurk – and if you don’t know what it is and are interested in e-commerce law, highly recommended) about courts citing Wikipedia with a couple of links to some other stuff, including an article on Slaw as well as an article in the New York Times about the concerns raised by some regarding court decisions citing Wikipedia. Some excerpts and notes to expand on my previous post:

From the con side:

In a recent letter to The New York Law Journal, Kenneth H. Ryesky, a tax lawyer who teaches at Queens College and Yeshiva University, took exception to the practice, writing that “citation of an inherently unstable source such as Wikipedia can undermine the foundation not only of the judicial opinion in which Wikipedia is cited, but of the future briefs and judicial opinions which in turn use that judicial opinion as authority.”

This raises a good point that I didn’t mention in my previous post. I certainly think Wikipedia is fine to note certain things, but I really, definitely, positively, do not think that it should be cited as judicial authority. In my previous article I thought this was so self-evident I didn’t bother mentioning, but the quote above illustrates that it might not be all that clear. Court decisions, as most of you know, are written by judges who take into account the facts and apply the law to the facts of the case, along with other facts and information that may have a bearing on the case. The source of the law includes statutes and of course previously decided cases, which enunciate rules or principles that the court either applies, distinguishes based on the facts as being inapplicable, or, in some cases, overturns (for any number of reasons). Court decisions are not, of course, published on Wikipedia and are not subject to the collective editing process of Wikipedia, nor should they be. Rather, references to Wikipedia in court cases are to provide additional or ancillary context or facts to a case. They do not and should not derogate from principles of law that are set forth in court decisions. But, contrary to what Mr. Ryesky, Esq., indicates above, I don’t think referring to Wikipedia for context or facts will suddenly undermine the foundations of law, since the legal reasoning itself still will and must be based on sources of law, not facts and not context.

Hence the following end to the NTY article:

Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School, saw this as crucial: “The most critical fact is public acceptance, including the litigants,” he said. “A judge should not use Wikipedia when the public is not prepared to accept it as authority.”

For now, Professor Gillers said, Wikipedia is best used for “soft facts” that are not central to the reasoning of a decision. All of which leads to the question, if a fact isn’t central to a judge’s ruling, why include it?

“Because you want your opinion to be readable,” said Professor Gillers. “You want to apply context. Judges will try to set the stage. There are background facts. You don’t have to include them. They are not determinitive. But they help the reader appreciate the context.”

He added, “The higher the court the more you want to do it. Why do judges cite Shakespeare or Kafka?”



Interesting post on the Wellington Financial Blog about “Wikiality” – the practice of taking stuff in Wikipedia as the truth, or, to quote: ““a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it becomes the truth.”

JN notes that Wikipedia has been cited by the courts, and this is reason for concern. A snippet:

The practice poses two problems:

  1. The references may be inaccurate; and
  2. Even if accurate, the references are subject to change at any point in the future, making it difficult for any future decisions to refer back to the original or understand the context in which it was made.

Given recent reports of Microsoft offering to pay individuals to make changes to certain Wikipedia articles in which they have a vested interest, the credibility of the site as a definitive reference source again comes into question.

A few of my colleagues at the firm also expressed bemusement when a recent case in Ontario (don’t have the citation, sorry) also cited Wikipedia.

I am quite a big fan of Wikipedia. It is, I think a rather useful and handy tool to refer to from time to time. Do I take it as the gospel? No. Would I use it if I were trying to concoct an antidote for a poison that was about to kill me? Probably not. Would I cite it in a legal research paper? Possibly. In fact, quite likely.

Although Wikipedia is by no means without its weaknesses, it also has its strengths. Sure, there is a possibility of inaccuracy. But then again, isn’t something less likely to have inaccuracies if it is reviewed (and edited) by more eyes (and more minds)? Isn’t it more likely that if there is a dispute about what is and isn’t correct, it will come to light, just like the Microsoft incident?

And what source, can it be said, is free of inaccuracies? Certainly not The New York Times. Although the Gray Lady is quick to point out that it was “deceived” by an errant reporter, it is less quick to reflect on the fact that it published fabricated stories. That of course is the clearest example, but history is rife with examples of inaccurate or misleading stories in the press. Less clear, of course, is media bias. And one only needs to refer to Manufacturing Consent. I don’t necessarily agree with all that book has to offer, but it certainly provides some food for thought.

What about scientific publications? Hmmm. Well. Again, truth is quite often relative. The clearest examples, are, of course, outright fabrication. Nonetheless, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s paper on producting the first cloned stem cell line was considered the truth for several years, until he was discredited. And more generally speaking, is it not true that, in the world of science, what is considered to be the truth is what most scientists believe to be true? Is that not the system of peer review? A great read on this topic is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (as an aside, its also the book that introduced the phrase “paradigm shift” into popular parlance). I won’t bore you with details, but suffice it to say that, at the end of the day, science, at least in concept, may not be that far from wikiality.

My point isn’t necessarily to skewer existing sources of “truth” but rather to point out that such sources aren’t necessarily more reliable or accurate, or less fallible, than something like Wikipedia.

And as for things changing? Make a copy.