USPTO blocks use of Wikipedia

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has removed Wikipedia from its list of accepted sources of information.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, has developed into a widely used resource for locating information quickly and conveniently. It has become the popular choice for those looking for quick, digestible 'nutshells' on a variety of topics. But just how reliable is this resource of information?

Due to its nature as a user-regulated resource, Wikipedia is useful as a 'casual' introduction to any topic one might be researching. It can point you in the right direction, and offer useful links to other valuable resources. However, it cannot be relied upon in any context where the veracity and accuracy of quoted information is of critical importance. This is because the key characteristic of the site is that it is written, edited and maintained by its users. Any user can contribute articles and edit existing entries with total freedom; no qualifications or expertise are required to post one's opinions, and there are no restraints on another user replacing your contributions with his or her own. The principle is that through this self regulatory practice, users are able to control the integrity of Wikipedia's articles by simply doing it themselves.

The nature of Wikipedia as an information resource has been thrown into new light with the possibility of its use and reference in legal proceedings. The USPTO has until recently been making reference to Wikipedia in some of its rulings. Presumably in response to criticism, the USPTO has now taken Wikipedia off its list of accepted sources of information.

In the context of trademarks, Wikipedia can potentially be a useful tool for supplementing evidence and arguments in the face of citations or oppositions, when examining the conceptual meaning of a mark for the purposes of similarity, or locating evidence as to the acquired distinctiveness of a mark. Wikipedia's articles can also be a useful indicator of public perception and recognition.

However, is Wikipedia a reliable source of information in legal research?

The susceptibility of Wikipedia to 'e-vandalism' has been widely documented, with examples including character assassination campaigns against the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo in the wake of his World Cup 2006 performances. Another example used to highlight the dangers of unconditionally using Wikipedia as a credible source involved the US television presenter Stephen Colbert calling on his viewers to enter false information into a variety of Wikipedia articles, such as the current population of elephants in Africa and the Far East. While Colbert and his online accomplices were subsequently locked out from the Wikipedia system, these vulnerabilities are symptomatic of the self-regulating model which it employs.

Wikipedia must therefore be seen as an informal, but very useful, introduction to topics of research. As a starting point it cannot be faulted, but care should be taken to always follow up and verify any key points through traditional sources.

Darren Olivier and Daniel Durnin, Field Fisher Waterhouse, London

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