International Legal Publishers — Lexis, Westlaw, Wolters Kluwer, And… Wikipedia

Yes, Wikipedia

A recent encounter I had with German tax law was quite revealing. A claim had been made by the German tax authorities for the payment of a gift tax on a transaction in Canada that took place more than a decade ago. A computer trace of some kind by the German tax authorities had recently brought the matter to light and resulted in a demand for the payment of back taxes by a Canadian to the German government based on incomplete information.

Recognizing my serious limitations in tax matters of any kind, I approached a highly regarded member of a well known Toronto law firm for assistance.

Needless to say, his first step was to get an idea about the nature of the law with which we were dealing. I expected him to say that he would have to research on the law in question and get back to me when he had done so.

To my astonishment, he simply said “wait a minute, let me check Wikipedia to see what it is has to say”! Almost without taking a breath, he accessed and read to me a summary of the law that was sufficient to frame the issue and identify the information that would have to be gathered to forward to a colleague based in Germany who would appeal the matter with the appropriate German authorities.

Wikipedia, not Westlaw, Lexis or Wolters Kluwer

My astonishment, of course, was based on his decision to resort to Wikipedia rather than any of the major online services that specialize in offering global tax information. More surprising was that Wikipedia gave him almost instantaneous free access to German tax law.

Based on my experience in legal publishing, my assumption was that he would resort to one of the major online services, either Wolters Kluwer (a.k.a CCH), Westlaw or LexisNexis. Major investments have been made in acquiring legal publishing businesses from around the world and in building global platforms to provide access to legal information to meet this very need. In this case the investment was all for nothing. Frankly, the thought of using Wikipedia for a quick overview of the law of Germany or anywhere else would never even have crossed my mind.

As it turned out, Wikipedia proved to be reliable. When the file was reviewed by the German tax lawyer, he confirmed its accuracy.

What does this mean for the ambitions of the major legal publishers who have invested in the development of global businesses and global platforms in the expectation and belief that there was an “international” market for legal information? If Wikipedia can do it all for free, what is left for the commercial publishers?


  1. Gary, thanks for sharing this very interesting story. My point of view continues to be that commercial publishers offer trusted answers that you shouldn’t have to confirm with another source…which is what your stroy illustrated for me. Wikipedia, while authoritative enough to be consulted as an overview or starting place, is not (yet?) authoritative enough to be the sole information source for any question.

    You may be interested to know that my daughter, who is in grade 12, was told that Wikipedia is an acceptable source for a Social Studies term paper as long as the citations in the article are the ultimate point of reference. This is a complete departure from the instructions given to her sister in the same class with the same teacher two years ago.