The Voice of Groklaw
From Law to Linux
December 31, 2003
LinuxPlanet: What route did you take (educationally and professionally) toward becoming a paralegal? When did you decide to get into the paralegal field, and why?
Jones: I went back to school in '89 and got my paralegal certificate because I thought it'd be a good field for someone who wanted to work part-time. I am basically an ambition-free person. I never wanted to be rich or famous or powerful. I just wanted some way to pay a simple life's bills and have as much time as possible for other things that I enjoy doing. I have for years been involved in volunteer work, and I wanted to support myself in a pleasant enough way where I could work hours of my choosing, which I have, so as to be free for that. That life choice is what eventually made it possible to do Groklaw.
LinuxPlanet: Please describe your transformation into a Linux enthusiast.
Jones: A relative of mine was a programmer/analyst and he taught me how to use Windows in the beginning, when I was working with a small law firm that was just starting to shift to computers. Lots of lawyers are still in the digital stone age, you know. Anyway, he taught me everything I needed to get on the horse and start riding. Then, he gave me his lovely Dell computer, with Red Hat 7 something on one side and Windows 98 on the other and that was my start with Linux. I think my love for computers has a lot to do with his patient training, because at first I simply hated computers, because nothing worked for me and I felt frustrated and stupid, but he encouraged me not to give up. After I had the basics mastered, my learning style was to just try something and see what happened, which he found horrifying, because you do break things that way. I did spend many hours reinstalling operating systems, no doubt about it, but I enjoy learning that way. I have yet to read a manual I enjoy.
I was the only one in the law office who could do a thing on the new computers, so I had to train everyone else. It was all Windows, so that meant troubles galore, viruses, blue screens of death, odd things nobody could explain or fix, no one to call at Microsoft, because we were too small a firm to be able to afford it. Happily, we had bought from Gateway. What a great company they were for support. It was up to me to call them and work through the issues. I found it interesting and I learned. Gateway really trained me in more depth on Windows, and I got interested in security, because there was no one but me to protect us in the office. One tech guy came to the office one day to fix a hardware problem and he saw I was interested, so he took the time to explain what he was doing and gave me a manual. I still have it. I found out that I liked the hardware too. I loved to spend an afternoon learning how to install a second hard drive, for example, or whatever.
After a while, though, the Windows problems were getting annoying. I found out that in Linux you can see the Windows side in a dual boot. I realized I could see things that are well hidden in Windows. I wasn't so crazy about what I saw. Shutting down all the doors and windows left open in a default Windows 98 configuration was illuminating. Somewhere I heard about Knoppix. Now, when things went wrong, I could fix it. And it was portable. If I got a virus, and couldn't boot into Windows, I could pop in the Knoppix CD and fix whatever the problem was. I kind of lost my taste for Windows from all of that and really, really fell in love with GNU/Linux software. Knoppix is Debian, as you know, and it's lovely to work with it without having to pass the can-you-install-Debian test. I love seeing what is happening in the software, instead of just pushing on an icon and hoping for the best. It's the difference between sitting in coach as a passenger and flying your own little airplane. When Microsoft changed its licensing scheme, that was the last straw for me, and I decided I'd rather not upgrade. Not ever. Not on those terms.
LinuxPlanet: You're a Mandrake user. Why?
Jones: Sheer loyalty. I always recommend people start with Mandrake or Knoppix. Mandrake is what made it possible for me to do Linux when I first started. It's GUI'd to the max and Mandrake considers newbies important. You can learn your commands but meanwhile you can start enjoying the software safely right away.
A GUI is just handholding, after all. It's someone's idea of what they think you will want to do, and they've put this picture layer on top of the commands you'd type if you just knew them. Once I realized that, I understand that no one can anticipate my every wish perfectly and then I started to learn the commands.
I also appreciate that Mandrake is good for desktop users, not just enterprise users. By that I mean, they don't assume you have a sys admin handy. They build in a firewall with a GUI interface and then also tell you to learn more and fortify yourself better as you learn. Mandrake helped me to love the software because things went right. I could function as if still in Windows while I learned more.
Someone just sent me a SUSE evaluation CD, and I love the elegant look, by the way. I'll try anything. A Groklaw regular teases that whoever dies with the most software wins. But I stay with Mandrake out of appreciation for helping me get started and because I like them as a company.
The Growth of the Site
LinuxPlanet: What's the origin of the "Groklaw" name?
Jones: I made it up. Grok, as you know, means to deeply understand something, in geekspeak. An attorney I regularly do assignments for was thinking about doing a website of legal news. I suggested the name and he didn't seem enthusiastic. I bought the name, thinking he might come around. He never did, so I kept it for myself to use someday. Later, when I wanted to learn how to blog, for another assignment for a different attorney, I had the name already, so I used it.
It telegraphs that the site is explaining legal news in depth, but from a particular, tech angle. It represents the two sides of me that are in play in doing Groklaw, now that I think about your question. I never actually expected anyone would read Groklaw when I first started. I was just trying to learn how to blog. My field of specialization is IP law, and now that Groklaw became popular and is now a web site, I realize it was a good choice, because trademarks are stronger with an invented name.
LinuxPlanet: When Groklaw expanded from a blog into a Web site, how did this impact the nature of your work?
Jones: Well, I certainly had more of it. If it were not for Peter Roozemaal, my webmaster and behind-the-scenes genius, I'd be in a pickle. The blog I could handle alone, but there are aspects to running a web site I haven't mastered. Then there is slashdotting. And I don't have a lot of time free any more to learn new things, sadly. The audience doubled the first week after we moved to the web site, and then it just kept doing that for weeks. We haven't stopped growing yet. More people means more email (that's an understatement) and more comments and more ideas and more issues and more administrative management. More work.
All of those things mean subtle changes in style. I'm still adjusting to that. As the audience grows, it also widens beyond the tech community. . At first, I was just writing to the air, because nobody read what I wrote. Then, a loyal following formed, blogfolk, mostly geeks like me, and they liked my sense of humor, so I just wrote as I pleased, and people liked it. Now, I have lawyers and journalists and financial analysts and CEOs who read Groklaw regularly, and I feel a real responsibility to write for them too or at least not to offend them. I am more careful, more.... I don't even know the word. I know my "voice" has changed somewhat and it's deliberate. Geek humor isn't always understood by non-geeks, so I have toned it down just a bit. It's not as much fun to write, but hopefully it's more effective and that's my goal, so I make adjustments as needed.
The biggest change is now I have a large group of people helping to do research. The readers are part of Groklaw. It started when I was blogging. We started writing the Open Letter to SCO on the blog, as a group effort, but it was hard to make the software do it. Moving to the website and changing to Geeklog software opened up many possibilities for a large, coordinated group effort. That community aspect of Groklaw is what has made it unique. It's open source legal research, and it works. I am simply amazed at what they dig up. And I know, with no false modesty, that the team effort is more valuable than anything I could do on my own. People who want to imprison their IP have no idea what they are cutting themselves off from, the value you get from pooling knowledge and skills.
Open Source Vs. Proprietary
LinuxPlanet: What are the three things you like best about open source software?
Um... there are more things I like than just three. I love that I can share it. I love that I can make it look any way I want. I love that there are so many applications that can do almost the same thing. Those variations are intriguing and useful. I actually use four or five editors regularly, each for different things, for example. I love the creativity. I love that I can learn as much as my abilities allow. I love that there is a community that will help you with problems. I love it because I feel like I can breathe when I use it. No license worries. No one treating me like a criminal. No IP police. No unmanageable worries about security or viruses. Just me and my computer, having fun.
LinuxPlanet: What are the five things you dislike most about proprietary software?
I'm not saying I never use proprietary software. And, as I told you, I have a relative who was a programmer/analyst and who made a living writing proprietary software, and I love him dearly. If they write something better than anything else I can find, I'll use it. For work, sometimes I have to. For evidence in court, I use SnagIt, for example. It's a great tool for capturing web sites to attach to court documents, and I use it for that. I avoid using Windows or Microsoft applications, like IE, on the internet, because it feels very insecure, like being all alone in Times Square at 3 AM. I still have a Windows 98 box because one attorney I do work for wants me to.
The Future of SCO v. Linux
LinuxPlanet: Do you think SCO will ultimately prevail or not? Why?
Jones: Barring martial law, you mean?
More seriously, I can't see how they can win, but how can anyone know absolutely when we have yet to be told after nearly a year what code they are talking about? Their demeanor makes me believe they think they have something up their sleeve, or imagine they do, some card they will play at the right minute in trial in the dispute against IBM. However, they thought their SCOForum code was dynamite, too.
You say "ultimately prevail," but in which arena? IBM is a contract dispute. Red Hat has to do with copyright and tort claims. Then there are the vague copyright threats against end users, now including possibly some BSD code. They have mentioned that the BSDi-USL settlement terms have been breached, but by whom and how and where?
How to predict any of this when it's all so nebulous? That vagueness appears to me to be deliberate, as if they are copying the USL pattern, but from what is now publicly known, I don't expect SCO to prevail, because I doubt that there is any infringing code using normal definitions, for one thing, and because their Don Quixote quest to have the GPL declared unconstitutional appears doomed.
LinuxPlanet: What if SCO turns out to be right about the Linux code violations? How would this influence your editorial stance?
Jones: It wouldn't. From day one, the community has said that if any code turns out to be in violation, it'll be removed immediately. Stallman, Linus, Moglen--they all offered to remove anything SCO can show that is infringing, and SCO refused their offers and refused to identify the code. If any code is ever proven to be in there, it'll be removed. End of story. It is like a sliver in your finger. Nothing helps but removing it totally. Nobody wants SCO's legacy code. That's their misfortune.
Nothing can alter the fact that SCO has refused to allow the community to remove any allegedly infringing code and so mitigate SCO's damages, if any exist. It would be a relief to find out where any stupid code is hiding so we can get it out, if they aren't just bluffing. If there is anything, from all I've heard, it seems it can only be a very tiny fraction, unless you accept SCO's highly unusual definition of derivative code, which I don't.
And nothing will ever erase SCO's behavior from the community's memory. If they had behaved honorably, or even normally, and showed the code they believe is infringing, the community would have stood on its head to be helpful. No one wishes to violate anyone's rights. That's been true from day one.
The problem is, SCO seems to want its code to be in Linux and to force Linux to keep it there, so SCO can be like a troll under the bridge, making you pay every time you cross the bridge. They want to be paid for every Linux sale, from what I understand, and so make money from code they claim they own inside it. They don't want to let anyone remove it, because then there is no money for them from each sale of Linux. That is the impasse, as I understand it.
It reminds me of just before the Revolutionary War, when the English forced the colonists to house and feed British troops in their homes. What a brainstorm that was. Not. The English thought it would be to their advantage to compel the colonists to toe the line. It backfired, because nobody likes a forced house guest who stays forever at your expense and whom you hate to begin with. SCO wants to force Linux to accept its code permanently moving in and remaining a house guest forever. They will find that it's just not acceptable and that the Linux community is resourceful and will not accept any such arrangement, so their dreams of untold wealth from Linux appear impossible of fulfillment.
Defining Wins and Losses
LinuxPlanet: Who stands to gain most if SCO wins in court? Who gains most if SCO loses?
Jones: This is an alternate universe question. I can't see how SCO "wins" no matter what happens. In the real world, if there is any infringing code, it'll be removed in a blink and if there are damages they'll be paid and then that is the last Linux dime SCO will ever see. That's in a best case scenario for SCO.
And GNU/Linux is so obviously the future. That is an unchangeable fact. Proprietary software will just have to learn to play nicely with others.
SCO is shortsighted. Litigation isn't a long-term business strategy, even if you "win." It's a one-time payout. Then what? If you have no product people want, that's the final chapter, especially if people really don't like you and what you stand for. As for grabbing Linux, and making it proprietary, it's impossible. The GPL ensures that.
Even if they could steal the current kernel, it'd be dead within a few weeks. All the free coders would stop supporting it and patching it and innovating with it, and SCO would soon find they had two obsolete software offerings instead of one. What they don't understand is that without the community, the kernel is nothing. The process is everything. They are trying to force Linux into a box, like their dead software, but you can't do it to Linux without killing it. So they can't "win." They can't develop or maintain the software without the community. No one can. They have to change their mind set to be relevant in the future. No company, not even Microsoft, can afford to hire all the coders willing to contribute to GNU/Linux, even if it could persuade them to work for them.
The GPL will be the big winner when SCO loses, I believe. The SCO story is a morality play, and the whole world is watching. Proprietary software is getting a black eye, no doubt about it. So from that standpoint, I think people see far more clearly how precious the freedoms are that the GPL seeks to protect. We see this crass and cynical attempt to rob honest, generous-hearted volunteers of their creative work, and many people watching respect the cleverness of the GPL, which foresaw this rainy day and planned for the SCOs of the world. As Rob Preston said last week, nobody respects a bully. To the extent that Sun and Microsoft are perceived as being supporters of SCO, I think they lose, no matter who "wins" in the courtroom. People are learning that proprietary software companies on SCO's side of the table seem to be more out for themselves, not caring much about their customers. You see SCO even threatening to sue their own customers. It's bizarrely offensive to any normal person. So the bottom line to me is that SCO taught us that users have interests that do not necessarily align with proprietary software companies' interests as personified in a company like SCO.
LinuxPlanet: Even if SCO does "win the battle," will it have "lost the war" by alienating a lot of people?
Jones: That war is over already, I believe. There appear to be a handful of analysts and some investors and one or two cynical reporters left who still think SCO has a point, or have various reasons for saying so. But for the rest of the world, as far as I can tell, they look at SCO like they just picked up a rock. I have seen a downward shift in SCO's reputation since January when all this began, and it's now like watching the tide go out: slow, but inexorable.