Wikimedia UK, the UK arm of the company that runs the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, has been registered as a charity.
The Charity Commission has granted it charitable status on the grounds that running Wikipedia provides a "public resource" by making information accessible to the public.
Jonathan Burchfield, a partner at the law firm Stone King, which worked on behalf of Wikimedia UK, told Third Sector the regulator’s decision was an important development in charity law because the promotion of open access to content had not previously been recognised as a charitable purpose.
"The decision was based on nineteenth-century case law that showed the provision of reading rooms was charitable because those rooms were a public resource," he said. "The commission has ruled that, by analogy, the provision of Wikipedia is also charitable because it is a public resource that operates for the public benefit."
The charity's purpose is none of the twelve that are specifically mentioned in the Charities Act 2006, but falls under an "any other purpose" provision that allows purposes that have previously been recognised in charity law, or are similar to them.
Burchfield said that in order to be registered, Wikimedia UK had to demonstrate that it had high standards for controlling and monitoring the content of Wikipedia so that it was not easily open to abuse.
He said that the organisation had previously attempted to register as a charity on the grounds that its activities were educational, but this had been rejected by the Charity Commission and HM Revenue and Customs.
"I have to give the Charity Commission a lot of credit in this case for being willing to look at the application imaginatively," he said.
Burchfield stressed that Wikimedia and Wikipedia were unrelated to Wikileaks, the website that publishes leaked information about governments and companies.
Wikimedia UK published a statement that said it would launch a global fundraising campaign to raise £1m to support Wikipedia and other projects, which would now be helped by its ability to claim Gift Aid on UK donations.