The Charity Commission's decision earlier this month to grant charitable status to Wikimedia UK, the UK arm of the company that runs Wikipedia, was seen as a landmark in the development of charity law.
The organisation was granted charitable status on the grounds that it provided a "public resource" by running Wikipedia. Solicitors at Stone King, the law firm working for Wikimedia UK, used the case of 19th-century reading rooms to argue that the provision of Wikipedia was charitable. The reading rooms were deemed to be charitable because they gave the public access to information and resources, and Wikimedia successfully argued that its own work was charitable by analogy to this.
The case has been complex, partly because the provision of a public resource is not one of the 12 charitable purposes explicitly mentioned in the Charities Act 2006. Rather, it falls under a 13th section, which is derived from the Statute of Elizabeth of 1601. The statute says a purpose can be charitable if, as explained by the lawyers Michael King and Ann Phillips in Charities Act 2006: a guide to the new law, it is "recognised as charitable within the existing law or analogous to or within the spirit of such purposes or analogous to those analogous purposes".
Wikimedia UK had previously tried to register as a charity using the more mainstream charitable purpose of the provision of education, but had been turned down by both the Charity Commission and HM Revenue & Customs.
Jonathan Burchfield, a partner at Stone King, which took on the case after Wikimedia UK was first turned down, says: "The provision of Wikipedia is not educational in the true charity law sense, which understands education to be something that flows downwards from somebody teaching you.
"It is, however, a public resource as long as it is delivered in a well- ordered, tightly controlled way and is not unduly open to abuse. On those grounds it is charitable."
Burchfield says the Charity Commission required compelling evidence of the checks and controls put in place by Wikimedia UK over the content of Wikipedia web pages. "People used to think of Wikipedia as an unreliable source of information," he says. "But there are stringent checks in place to prevent it from being manipulated. The commission would not have been happy to register it without evidence of these, because they show that the charity is capable of delivering its objects of providing reliable open content."
The case raises questions about whether the commission's decision to register Wikimedia UK - the first time an open content website has achieved this - has set a precedent that could lead to hundreds or thousands of information-sharing websites applying for charitable status.
"You would have to make sure any new applicant wanting to follow the path of Wikimedia UK was being careful about how it controlled the information and prevented it from being manipulated or misused," says Andrew Studd, a partner at the law firm Russell-Cooke.
"But as long as an organisation did this, and could show that its information was for the public benefit, there would be a good case to grant it charitable status. I wonder whether the provision of the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, or even that of a local newspaper, would now be seen as charitable."