Jimmy Wales
Chairman, Wikia; Co-Founder, Wikipedia

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Most engineers agree that software patents are a bad idea.

Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales is an American Internet entrepreneur known for his role in the creation of Wikipedia, a free, open-content encyclopedia launched in 2001. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, holding the board-appointed "community founder" seat.  In 2004, he co-founded Wikia, a privately owned, free Web-hosting service, along with Angela Beesley.

Together with Larry Sanger and others, Wales helped lay the foundation for Wikipedia, which subsequently enjoyed rapid growth and popularity. As Wikipedia expanded and its public profile grew, Wales took on the role of the project's spokesman and promoter through speaking engagements and media appearances. Wales has been historically cited as the co-founder of Wikipedia but he disputes the "co-" designation, asserting that he is the sole founder of Wikipedia.  Wales' work developing Wikipedia, which has become the world's largest encyclopedia, prompted Time magazine to name him in its 2006 list of the world's most influential people.

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Wales attended a small private school, then a university preparation school, eventually attaining a bachelor's degree and master's degree in finance. During his graduate studies he taught at two universities.


Question: What impact does your work have in the world?

Jimmy Wales: I think there are different kinds of impact for different kinds of people and different kinds of societies. For most of us who live in the developed world, Europe, the U.S., Japan, anywhere that’s a developed part of the world, we actually are faced primarily with a problem of information overload. And the role of an encyclopedia in that is to basically summarize things for us.

If I want to learn about Albania, I don’t want to go and read 500 web pages. I just want a quick summary of information. So that’s very valuable. It’s sort of a starting point for people to get a basic framework and then go beyond that. But for many parts of the world, when we see the growth of Wikipedia in languages like ____, which is one of the languages of India, in those languages frequently the problem is not an overload of information. It’s actually a shortage of information. There’s very little material available to people; not so many books published; not nearly as many books translated into most languages that we’d like to see.

So the Wikipedia articles can then be, in many cases, the first real easy source of information that’s available at all. So that’s pretty important. I think it’s important, too, that all of our work is freely licensed. So people can copy it, modify it, and re-distribute it commercially or non-commercially.

We’re starting to see projects where people are taking Wikipedia content and putting it onto CDs, for example. Or printing it in book form and distributing it in places where there’s very poor Internet access, and very low levels of literacy and things like this. That’s really, really important. And it’ s important that people are able to do that without even asking us. They can just basically take the content and redistribute it because that’s the license we put it out under, because I think that’s going to have a really big impact in a lot of places in the world.

Question: How will you expand Wikipedia in developing countries?

Jimmy Wales: It turns out that it takes a very small number of people participating to generate quite a bit of information.  We know from looking at some of the very big languages of Wikipedia, some of the bigger European languages of Wikipedia have a very small number of speakers. So it’s not like Swedish. There’s several million speakers of Swedish, but yet they have a huge Wikipedia.

Normally you’ll see participation by 50, 100, 200 people would be enough to generate quite a bit of work over a period of years. So a lot of this is going to come organically. A lot of this is going to come as we see increasing penetration of Internet access in different parts of the world.

Right now by typical estimates, there’s around one billion people online. And it’s estimated that in the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see the next billion people come online. Well those billion people are not going to come online from the U.S., and Europe, and Japan because we’re all pretty much online already. They’re going to come from South America – a huge boom in Internet in places like Brazil; from Africa maybe a little slower; India and China.

So people are coming online in droves from non-English, non-Western countries. And they’re going to be adopting Wikipedia, and they’re going to be building their own language versions of Wikipedia.  So in terms of how do we get it going there, I think a lot of it is outreach, promotion, letting people know that it exists and that they have an opportunity to share in their own language. But yeah, it’ll come.

Question: What Impact do you have on the internet?

Jimmy Wales: Well gee. It doesn’t suck as much as it used to. It still sucks, so . . .

Question: What is the future of the internet?

Jimmy Wales: A lot of great stuff has already come out on the Internet, but I think we’re still at the very beginnings of some of the things.  So we have these huge community projects to build all kinds of different works and text. And then we’re just at the very beginning threshold of what’s possible with video online.

Right now what we see, for example, at YouTube is individuals posting their own videos. They’re doing a little bit of this and that.  It reminds me very much of the early days of text on the Internet when you had old Geocities home page providers. And so people were throwing up all kinds of random stuff – some of it really good, some of it not so good; but not really the community process around creating things.

So I think that’s one of the big areas of growth in the future is that, as we get more and more people who have enough bandwidth to be able to do video online, and the tools begin to mature so that people can remix and cut and build things, I think we’re going to see things like mass collaborative projects to build political documentaries with bits of footage – sort of man on the street footage from all around the world and things like that. We haven’t seen a lot of that yet, but it’s coming very quickly.

Question: What do you think of the ownership issues of Internet content?

Jimmy Wales: Not too much. I think that a lot of people are beginning to realize that there are sustainable business models that can be built around freely licensed content – around user-generated content that’s placed under a creative commons type of license, for example. And that begins to help resolve some of the classic issues that we’ve had.

For a long time, the whole copyright debate was really bogged down in a very polarized situation with some very alarmist ideas that the music industry is going to collapse because everybody is stealing their content online. Or the content creators are going to take control of the Internet and people won’t be able to post whatever because of the copyright issues.

But now we’re starting to see, well actually, there’s a more balanced approach – the idea of seeing some rights reserved; that people can share things under various licenses. We’re starting to see a lot more maturity around those issues. So I’m reasonably optimistic that it’s really not that big of a problem.

Question: What is your proudest achievement?

Jimmy Wales: Wikipedia is just really huge, and very popular, and very good, and getting better all the time. I feel that giving that to the world is great. That’s enough. I still have lots of great ideas and lots of things that I’m working on; but to date that’s the thing that I’ve accomplished so far that I feel like, when people look back on the Internet 200 years from now and they look at the early days of the Internet – which we’re still in the very early days – they’re going to look at Wikipedia and they’re going to say, “You know that was something that was good. That was something that people came together and did something useful.” And that’s something I’m proud of.

Question: What is the biggest problem the Internet faces?

Jimmy Wales: There’s several different problems or challenges. One of the concerns that I have is, the issue of software patents is one that concerns me a great deal. Most in the computer industry agree that software patents are a bad idea; that they don’t really work; they don’t foster innovation – they actually hinder innovation.

And the way patents work, it’s very different from copyrights. So with copyright, you can know whether somebody violated your copyrights. As long as I didn’t look at your code and copy it, I’m fine. But with a patent, I may not even know I’m violating your patent.

And these days in the U.S., patents are being granted for the most trivial and idiotic things, and it’s a really problem. It’s a problem that is beginning to endanger and threaten innovation.

So far anyway, the European Union has rejected the notion of software patents, and that’s really important. I think it’s something the U.S. should reject as well as soon as possible because, instead of having this culture we have right now where you have just radical innovation month after month, year after year, we could be in a position where a handful of players could gain an advantage in the market that’s more or less permanent.

I mean a 17-year patent is essentially an infinite amount of time on the Internet. That’s completely unreasonable. So for me, that’s one of the concerns I have.

Question: How does America's use of the Internet compare to the rest of the world?

Jimmy Wales: I think we’re doing just fine. I’m not as pessimistic as some people. Sometimes when people look at levels of broadband penetration and things like that, where we don’t necessarily rank in the highest rank, I think that some of those comparisons are a little bit invalid. In other words, trying to figure out an economical way to get broadband Internet access throughout the entire United States – which is quite a large place with many remote places where people live – it’s very different from supplying broadband Internet access in South Korea, for example, or Finland. These are very small places by comparison, very concentrated populations.

I think that the biggest advantage that the U.S. has with the Internet is something that we should really be careful about, is it’s still the best jurisdiction in many ways for freedom of speech. The First Amendment is of enormous importance for the Internet. It’s kind of an interesting thing because in the past, the First Amendment rights for most ordinary people had very little actual impact. You had a secondary impact.

In other words, it’s important to me in 1970 that the press is free, and that books can be published because then I can consume all of those things. But as a person producing content to share with others, the First Amendment had very little impact on my day-to-day life.  Nowadays it does, right? We can all publish. We can all reach out. We can all have a voice. It’s really important that we have freedom of speech because that’s what generates this amazing bounty of great stuff.

So today it’s really not a problem. The First Amendment is constantly under assault from here and there and yon. But for the most part it holds up reasonably well.

Question: What is the most exciting possibility you see in technology?

Jimmy Wales: One of the things that excites me about the future possibilities of technology in the next few years is something that I already spoke about earlier, which is the next billion people coming online. I think that’s a really fascinating thing, because I think we’re really at a threshold point here.

Right now, the participation on the Internet is basically people who we already hear from all the time anyway. So Europe, Japan, even China. That’s an interesting cultural dialogue that’s going on every day in millions of places all over the Internet. But what’s really coming next is the next group of people coming on from India and Africa – places that frankly the media gives us very little information about unless there’s a train bombing or something. And those people will come online and basically interact with us directly, and we’re going to learn a lot about different cultures in a way that maybe we haven’t before. For me, that’s a really exciting development; the first time that we’ll see millions of people online from Africa talking to us. So I think that’s going to be fascinating.


Recorded On: Aug 10, 2007