This fall, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wikipedia Student Program with a series of blog posts telling the story of the program in the United States and Canada.
Amanda Levendowski was a law school student 10 years ago when her professor assigned her to edit a Wikipedia article as a class assignment, part of the pilot program of what is now known as the Wikipedia Student Program. She tackled the article on the FAIR USE Act, a piece of failed copyright reform legislation introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren. And she was hooked.
“It felt so impactful to be able to contribute to this repository of knowledge that everyone I knew was using and leave behind something valuable,” Amanda says.
When her class ended, she wasn’t done with Wikipedia. She developed an independent study in law school to create the article about revenge porn because she was writing a scholarly piece about it and noticed that there wasn’t a Wikipedia article about the problem.
“That article has been viewed more than 1 million times — it’s probably gonna have more views than any piece of scholarship I write for the rest of my life,” she says.
She continued editing herself, even appearing in a 2015 “60 Minutes” piece about editing Wikipedia. (“There was a lot of footage that was understandably left on the cutting-room floor, but I’ll always remember wryly responding to Morley Safer when he suggested that copyright law was a little outdated and maybe a little boring — I think I said something like, ‘I’m sure many of your producers who rely on fair use would disagree.’ Who says that to Morley Safer?!” she recalls.) But she attributes her ongoing dedication to Wikipedia in part to Barbara Ringer.
“The year I graduated from law school, I overhauled the article about Ringer, the lead architect of the 1976 Copyright Act, the law around which much of my professional life revolves, during a WikiCon edit-a-thon,” she explains (the hero image on this blog post is of Amanda speaking at WikiConference USA in 2014). “There is something meditative about making an article better, about sharing an untold story, that I couldn’t resist wanting to continue experiencing alongside my students. And in the process, I found this stunning quote from Ringer about how the public interest of copyright law should be ‘to provide the widest possible access to information of all kinds.’ It’s hard to hear that and not think of Wikipedia and its mission.”
And now the student has become a professor herself. Amanda’s an Associate Professor of Law and Director, Intellectual Property and Information Policy Clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center. And she assigns her students to edit Wikipedia as a class assignment, of course.
One such student is Laura Ahmed, who is interested in the intersection of intellectual property and privacy law. Laura, who graduated in spring 2020, was both excited and nervous to tackle a Wikipedia assignment, making improvements to current Supreme Court case Google v. Oracle America, on the copyrightability of APIs and fair use.
“It is almost certainly going to have a substantial impact on software development in the United States, so I think it’s important for the information that is out there about the case to be accurate. That is what made me so nervous about it; it’s such a critical issue and I wanted to be sure that anything I was saying about it was adequately supported by facts,” she says. “Amanda was really great though about helping me get started and build up my confidence to edit the page. When we were editing, COVID-19 had just caused the Supreme Court to postpone several arguments, including this case. So Amanda suggested I start there, and once I’d made that one change it felt easier to go into the substance of the case and change some of the article to better reflect the legal arguments that are being made in the case.”
While Laura found the time constraints of a class assignment challenging, she thought the assignment was critical for both Wikipedia’s readers and her own hands-on learning as a law student.
“This assignment made me really think critically about what I’ve learned in law school and how I can use that knowledge in productive, but unexpected ways,” Laura explains. “When you’re a law student, you tend to forget that a lot of legal concepts aren’t common knowledge. So a lot of cases on Wikipedia really could benefit from a first or second year law student going in and just clarifying what the court actually said or what has actually happened with a case. It’s a nice reminder that we have more to contribute than we think.”
This reflection is exactly what Amanda experienced as a student herself, and is now seeing as an instructor. She reflects back on the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct: “As a member of a learned profession…a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”
“It’s hard to imagine a more powerful way to further the public’s understanding of law and justice than by empowering law students to improve Wikipedia articles about those laws: it teaches the public, but it also teaches the students the twin skillsets of editing and the value of giving knowledge back to our communities,” Amanda says. “This community isn’t perfect, but I’m so inspired by the many, many volunteers who are striving to make it better. I’m proud to include myself and my students among them, and I’m excited to see where we are another decade out.”