An online encyclopedia, which launched with an English language version in 2001, has become the world's largest ever encyclopedia reports Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia went live in January 2001 and was quickly followed by French, German, Catalan and Swedish versions.

Over the past seven years it has grown to include more than 250 language editions with more than eight million articles, almost a quarter of which are in English. Thanks to the GNU Free Documentation License that covers all Wikipedia content, it is also the most open and free. But just who is behind Wikipedia? And how does it work?

Brianna Laugher, a Wikipedia editor, presenter of the 'Who's behind Wikipedia?' mini-conference at the 2008 and speaker at Wikimania, the 2007 international Wikimedia conference, reveals all.

What is Wikipedia?

Wiki is the term for a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit web page content. Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is one of the world's top ten most visited web sites, created by a community of editors that anybody can join. It is hosted and managed by the Wikimedia Foundation, an American-based non-profit organisation.

"It's an encyclopedia, so that's the rule used to define what is and isn't appropriate content for it," Laugher said.

What Wikipedia is not is an almanac of absolutely anything that anybody can put in about whatever they like. This is why the Wikimedia Foundation has created numerous sister projects, such as Wiktionary and Wikibooks, to incorporate the huge volume of non-encyclopedic content. It's free to read and free of advertising, and it's free to join the Wikipedia community to edit and contribute articles.

"But it's really free in a much deeper sense; free as in freedom, not as in beer. In that you can use it and reuse it however you like," Laugher said.

"You could make up your own little book full of Wikipedia articles and sell it, and that's totally accepted. You could start up your own version of Wikipedia and that would be fine too, as long as you are following the terms of the copyleft process."

Copyright means the author reserves all rights and control over a work. Copyleft works in reverse - it means the author uses the law to share and give those rights to anyone provided any resulting copies or adaptations are similarly bound by the copyleft practice.

"This means you have to offer all the people that you release the work to the same rights that you have, so that means once a work becomes free it can never become unfree after that. That is a really powerful mechanism," Laugher said.

"The idea of freedom to use and reuse as you like, freedom to modify and change, are things that are very important to Wikipedia and its success."

NEXT PAGE: An in-depth look at the Wikimedia Foundation, its mentality and its sister projects.