The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) works "to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally". To serve this mission, the legal team helps make and implement decisions on behalf of the WMF. WMF is part of the community devoted to this mission, but its organizational role is distinct from the roles of other community members.
As part of our support of the Wikimedia Foundation, the legal team sometimes provides WMF's perspective on issues of interest to community members. We (the legal team) want everyone to understand what we are doing, and not doing, when we provide that perspective.
The legal team represents the Wikimedia Foundation, which makes decisions through the Executive Director and the Board. We do not represent you, or any other community member, or the community in general. Similarly, when the legal team comments on an issue we provide a perspective—the perspective of WMF. This allows WMF to further the mission without legally compromising itself (and thus all the sites). Accordingly, we work hard to make sure the perspective is sound and well-informed, and input from you and other community members is invaluable in giving us the information we need to advise WMF on what is at stake on a given issue. Nevertheless, the perspective we provide is just that—a perspective. It is the position WMF takes, not advice regarding what you or any other community member should do or not do in a particular situation. We do things this way to make sure we can effectively represent the Wikimedia Foundation and promote its mission.
We use this disclaimer template to ensure our discussions are not misunderstood as legal advice to you or anyone other than WMF. Individuals may, of course, agree or disagree with WMF’s legal perspective, but we hope that this document will be useful as one source of information for the community’s decision-making process.
If you feel you need personal legal advice, we encourage you to contact a lawyer who can represent you. Some non-profit organizations, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sometimes agree to represent users of websites and advise on particular issues. You may also consult free legal referral services like Online Media Legal Network, the Digital Media Law Project, and various Legal Aid programs listed here to get in touch with a lawyer that can assist you. Additionally, some contributors may qualify for WMF’s Legal Fees Assistance Program if you need help defending against unfounded legal claims based on your activity on Wikimedia projects.
The specific ethical obligations of the Wikimedia Foundation legal team
The disclaimer above mentions our ethical obligations as lawyers. In specific, we are generally obliged to comply with the California Rules of Professional Conduct. This section gives some more background on those rules: why they apply and what the most relevant obligations are.
Our legal team works from our headquarters in San Francisco, California. Our lawyers therefore must abide by California’s rules of professional conduct. These rules are legally binding and are enforced by the state bar and, in some cases, courts. A finding that any of our lawyers failed to comply with the rules could result in reputational damage, disbarment, or potential liability for the lawyer, and would be bad for the Foundation as well.
- California’s Rules of Professional Conduct require that our lawyers follow the principle that our client is the Wikimedia Foundation itself. Our lawyers therefore do not represent other clients, unfortunately including community members. Compliance with these ethics provisions is not intended to build a wall between the Foundation and the community, especially because there would be no Foundation without the community. In this context, the purpose of the rule is to make sure the Foundation is well served by its lawyers and that members understand the legal team’s role and the constraints on its work.
- As one example of this point, when the legal team advises the Foundation, or explains the Foundation’s perspective on an issue, the team addresses the Foundation’s interest. Individual problems are necessarily shaped by the specific facts of particular situations and by the laws of the applicable jurisdiction. As the legal team of a nonprofit organization with an enormous volunteer base, we are not in a position to understand fully the facts and law applicable to every case, so we could not offer individualized advice, even if it were otherwise possible under the rules.
For these reasons, we use the disclaimer template to ensure our discussions with community members are not confused as advice to, or representation of, those members. If a community member wants official legal advice, they should contact their own lawyer.
- See California Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3-600(A) (link out of date)