Groklaw – "The blog that made a difference"

A Q&A with Pamela Jones

Richard Hillesley
The H Open

May 16 2011

Groklaw [ ] began life in 2003 as the personal blog of Pamela Jones, better known as PJ. "At the start, I was just trying to learn how to use blogging software," she has said. "I was startled to learn anyone was reading what I wrote... I started covering the McDonald's 'I'm fat and it's your fault' litigation and Martha Stewart and just whatever was in the news, just to have something to write about as I learned how blogging worked."

The emergence of Groklaw coincided with The SCO Group's decision to take legal action against IBM and the Linux community. PJ's first article on the case, "SCO Falls Downstairs, Hitting its Head on Every Step" [ ], appeared in May 2003.

"Then, when readers showed up, and I saw the media in general was taking SCO seriously, I began to realize what could happen." Groklaw quickly became an essential starting point for readers interested in the role of the law as it applied to Linux and free software.

SCO had claimed ownership of the copyrights for the UNIX system V code, and alleged that "substantial System V code" had been copied into the Linux Kernel. Darl McBride, The SCO Group's CEO, claimed "we counted over a million lines of code that we allege are infringed in the Linux kernel today." The claims were specious, but were leant credibility by a credulous press.

SCO's stock price rose from under $3 a share to over $20 during the summer of 2003 in the belief that SCO was about to make a killing. Groklaw led the fightback, addressing the discrepancies between SCO's wilder assertions and the truth. By 2007, the bottom had fallen out of SCO's business, and SCO's share price had dropped to less than 50 cents.

Hitting its Head on Every Step

It is difficult to understand what motivated SCO's litigation, or what The SCO Group and its shareholders hoped to achieve when it began legal proceedings. The copyrights to the System V version of UNIX had been owned by AT&T, and sold on to Novell. Novell sold on its Unix System V business to the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) but, as it transpired, not the copyrights. SCO was later absorbed by Caldera, a Linux company which had had a successful IPO in January 2000 on the back of the dotcom boom and the rising popularity of Linux. The amalgamated operation was renamed The SCO Group, and could be said to have owed its existence to Linux.

The purchase of The Santa Cruz Operation was intended to open up SCO's business channels to Caldera's Linux operation, but instead led the company into a downward spiral of litigation. Meanwhile Groklaw became the meeting ground for a growing community of users and lawyers who were eager to share an understanding of the legal and technical issues, and expose the fallacies that underpinned SCO's case.

As PJ saw it: "my readers knew the tech, I knew how to explain what was happening in the litigation, and they knew where to find evidence that what SCO was saying wasn't likely to prove true... My concept was that this could actually make the system work as intended, by speeding up the learning curve."

Subsequently, Groklaw played a vital role in unearthing and exposing the flaws in SCO's case. Most notably, Groklaw obtained and published the 1994 settlement in the USL v. BSDi case, which had been hidden from public view, and played a significant role in undermining SCO's claims to the ownership of Unix.

Inevitably, Groklaw will always be identified with PJ and the role she has played in illuminating the issues in the SCO case, but its remit has spread to cover all aspects of the law as it affects free software. Now that the SCO case has finally collapsed, PJ is taking a well earned rest and is leaving the spotlight to Mark Webbink, formerly General Counsel at Red Hat, and board member of the Software Freedom Law Center, who is well versed in issues of law as they affect free and open source software.

The H is pleased to have caught up with PJ, to ask her about life and Groklaw.

The H: Can you describe your working life at Groklaw?

PJ: I can tell you I never worked so hard in all my life. News doesn't happen 9 to 5, and so it was like being on call every minute of every day and nights too. Just hard work all the time, 24/7. And building a community is work too, fun, but still it takes time to answer all the email. I tried to follow in rms' footsteps and answer everyone, but at a point, I had to stop because I was spending about five hours a day just on email, and I needed time to do Groklaw too. That's part of why I need to stop and breathe a little bit.

Getting into free software

The H: What drew you towards the free software movement, and what was your background in the law?

PJ: I worked as a paralegal, and I was in a small firm that had no IT department. I got anointed to try to find out what kind of computers to buy and then to keep them running.

Most law firms are like that, by the way. We've been covering the work of really large, international firms, and it's been a real pleasure to watch them work, but most lawyers in the US are either in small firms or working as solo practitioners.

So we got Windows 95 computers for the office, and thus began my education. What a headache! When I read the other day that Sergey Brin said Microsoft tortures its users, I knew what he meant. It was torture. In the course of trying to deal with it, I discovered two tools, first a free editor called EditPad and then Knoppix [ ]. I discovered that in EditPad, I could open up files in Windows that were system files. I could then see abnormalities because I could compare the files on all the computers, the infected one and the others, because they were identical. So I would look for abnormalities. Like I saw once some guy wrote how we didn't have enough space for music. It was a comment deep in a file you'd never look at because it looks like gobbledy gook, so things like that would stand out, and then I'd know we had a problem. It's how I learned computers, by just trying to solve things. Lots of reinstallations! When I read about how hard it is to install LInux, I laugh. Try installing Windows 95 or 98. Ugh. The drivers! When I learned that with Linux you could keep your /home partition and easily just reinstall the rest, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.

And being responsible made me start to read about security issues and how to solve things in Windows. Little by little I came to the conclusion that there was no way to be safe in Windows 95 or later 98. And as I played with Knoppix, trying to fix all the headaches in Windows, I started to realize that I loved Knoppix. I really loved it. I still do, by the way. That was how it started.

The H: Can you remember what you hoped from Groklaw at that time. Did it work out as planned?

PJ: I had no hopes at all. I was startled and appalled when I first learned that people were reading Groklaw. I was a real dope about the Internet, and I was totally unaware that I was writing to the world.

It was the feeling you'd get if you were singing or dancing by yourself, with the relaxed abandon that flows from privacy, only to find out hundreds of people had watched the whole thing. But then readers started to teach me things, and as I realized how much they knew about the tech, I understood what Groklaw could be, with me trying to explain the legal process and readers explaining the technology, so each of us could see what was and wasn't true about SCO's accusations and how to prove it with facts. That was a total thrill. FUD [,_uncertainty_and_doubt ] wilts under a bucket of facts.

The H: How did you get involved and how easy will it be to let go? How satisfying has your, presumably accidental, adventure into the world of free software and the law been?

PJ: It isn't easy to let go, but I feel like we created something that changed the world in a small but real way. What I hoped for did happen, and it was such a challenging and deeply creative process, I feel fulfilled. It's a wonderful feeling to know that your hard work is enjoyed and appreciated by so many people all over the world.

The H: Groklaw played a large part in exposing the issues around SCO. How big a role do you feel the participation of Groklaw and others have played in highlighting the issues and opening up the legal process? And what are you most proud of?

PJ: I think Groklaw altered the course of legal history. Period. In fact, I know we did.

Learning from Groklaw

The H: Have you learnt as much from the Groklaw process, of accumulating and dispensing information about the law, and the positives and negatives of world of journalism, as your readers, friends and volunteers, have?

PJ: More!

I actually know how to do Groklaw in a different way from doing it the way I did. I see how to make it much bigger, and I definitely see how to do it commercially. I just decided not to.

The H: Does democracy work? Has Groklaw actually influenced the legal process, or has its role been to inform the audience? If it has, what have been your greatest triumphs?

PJ: Groklaw was not a democracy. I was in charge, because there is no other way to do a legal news site. There was a lot at stake, there were venal underminers at work constantly, and there was a smear campaign being coordinated by folks very eager to cause trouble if we made any serious mistake.

But if you think about it, Linux isn't a democracy either. It's more like a pyramid. Anyone can contribute at the base of the pyramid, but as you move up toward the point at the top, it's more controlled. Groklaw works like that too. We did try to work with a wiki, but it doesn't work. First, obstructionists show up and deliberately try to ruin your work. Second, you risk lawsuits if people don't know the law about copyrights and libel and so on.

The Facebook smear campaign against Google gives you a hint of all the venality that goes on, and we lived it at Groklaw.

The H: I've seen Groklaw described as a "hack on the law", or more accurately, as "open source" applied to the law. Is that a fair reflection of the community that has grown up around Groklaw and the way it works? What have your helpers, friends, and contributors (the community) given to the cause?

PJ: Definitely. That is exactly what it is. I could never have done Groklaw without all those volunteers who helped me carry the burdens and shared the fun. People show up with skills and because they have those skills and you don't, you'd never think to try what they propose, but when they show you, it's wonderful. That's how we started doing charts of legal documents, comparing versions of a complaint and highlighting the changes or doing one of a complaint and an answer or two opposing memorandums of law. You can see in a glance what matters, what changed, what is at issue, with color coding. I didn't think of that. I didn't even know how to do the HTML for a chart. A member came up with that, and when he sent it to me, we started to do it. In one article in the Wall Street Journal, it said that both sides in SCO v. IBM read Groklaw and made use of the resources we made public, and I believe it. We organized it all in a way that made it possible to see both the details and the overview.

And think about the volunteers who travel sometimes for hours to attend hearings and the trials. These guys have jobs, so they have to plan ahead and use vacation time to do it. Can you imagine the heart? And yet in all the years I ran Groklaw, we only once wanted to cover a hearing and couldn't.

Transcripts – one member wrote a script for me so I can take a PDF and it spits out an HTML document with headers and footnotes, pagination, the works. I have to clean it up, because bots only go so far, but it made it possible to do Groklaw without harming my health. I was starting to get pain in my wrists from typing so much.

And when we needed to get documents, I'd let everyone know and we always got enough contributions to buy them. I do wish the government would make it free or at least cheaper to get legal filings. It's cheap if you look at it as wanting just a few documents, but when it's something like Groklaw, it's thousands of dollars a year. And yet they paid for it.

And then I have access to lawyers and programmers who are some of the best in the world who I can ask if I need to understand something, which I do often. Groklaw really is a community within the community, and most of our top people came early and they never left. And any time there was an emergency, everybody shows up. It is a living, breathing community.

The H: There has been some outrageous press coverage of Groklaw over the years, including personal attacks, and some more recent less than fulsome apologies for getting the facts wrong. In the light of this, do you have any reflections on the nature of the press, "think tanks", and consultancies in the technology industries and how they influence the technological climate?

PJ: Hmm. Again, the Facebook incident gives you a clue.

Some of the journalists I have met are exactly what you'd want them to be, though, just upright and determined to get it right. And one of the fun parts of Groklaw was that we tried, from the beginning, to help them get it right, and I put in many, many hours explaining things privately when they had questions. So did the members. I respect journalists very much, actually, for the most part. We were trying to explain the tech to lawyers, but we were targeting journalists too.

I saw a few of the ambivalent articles. One was by a guy I believe is deliberately trying to undermine the community. The other two were by really good journalists who had a hard time comprehending what we were trying to accomplish with Groklaw. They are both good guys though.

Whenever you try something brand new, it's hard for people to know what to make of it, I guess. And if you don't mind my saying it out loud, it's a little hard for some guys to handle it when a female does something better than they do or even as well. Groklaw made headlines and it was very successful, and a little jealousy entered the picture, I suspect. One even admitted it.

Hey. I don't care. We're all just humans here. We all do our best. And it's never perfect, so we have to give each other room to mess up here and there, and they did. But with that one exception, I like them both.

I guess I could answer the main criticisms now. One said Groklaw was silly. I'd say this: Groklaw was a serious and, as it turned out a dangerous, beast. It's me who is silly.

I yam what I yam.

But I can say this: humor lets you say things that otherwise make people mad or more stubbornly opposed. Think Mark Twain. I like laughing and I couldn't have done Groklaw if I couldn't mess around and have fun, but it was also for a serious purpose too. And it did achieve that purpose.

And the other criticism was that I should be more open source, with the community playing more of a role. First, he has no idea what people were doing in the background. Because of the threats we got, no one much wanted credit after a while in public. Our goal was to be effective, and it wasn't about limelight for me or for anyone. In addition, when you are writing about the law, in such a hostile atmosphere as we were during the SCO follies, you have to get it right. I knew from doing the wiki that you have to have some legal background to get it right and not get sued or shut down.

So when I read the criticism, I knew they were wrong, but I didn't want to explain at the time.

I've been fortunate in that I never cared about being popular. We wouldn't even let Google in for a long time, and then when we did, it was only in a restricted way. I was actually trying to stay small, so I could cope with it all administratively. So when people said Groklaw was the greatest invention since the wheel, I still saw its flaws. And when they attacked, I saw its value just the same as before. I don't know where that comes from, that ability to just know that you can do something no matter what people say, but I had it with Groklaw.

I'm very shy and insecure in other areas, but with Groklaw, I just knew what I was doing, and I always knew what was right for Groklaw, what would work and what couldn't with the resources we had. I implemented ideas others came up with, but I knew and actively pointed the ship toward the exact point I wanted to get to at all times. That was the most satisfying thing, I guess, about doing Groklaw, that when everyone showed up, I saw what it could become, and I never wavered. We did achieve that creative vision, and I loved doing it. The highlight for me personally was our trial coverage in SCO v. Novell. Volunteers would attend, and then when they sent me their reports, I could point out where SCO witnesses were saying things that were not true. That was a delight, even if it was by far the hardest I ever worked in my life. Lots of 4 AMs for two weeks.

Beyond PJ's Groklaw

The H: Technology seems to be beset with legal entanglements, and as the use of free software in the "developing" world grows, the contradictions between the interests of the incumbent and emergent powers in this field seems to grow. If you could change a part of the law as it effects free software, what would it be?

PJ: Software and patents need to get a divorce.

They are destroying US tech innovation. Microsoft, of course, is the most prominent moving force, trying to either destroy or control GNU/Linux with patents. It's such a small, venal dream, but Microsoft is Microsoft. But they couldn't pursue their dream without the toxic patent system.

The H: What do you think the big issues and dangers of the next few years will be, affecting free software and its growth, and what are the positives?

PJ: It's all about patents now, and mobile. That's the battlefield now, and that's why I knew it was time to step aside, because that's not my area of expertise. I've always hated patent law, and watching Microsoft and others misuse the patent system for anticompetitive purposes, I realized why I always hated it. And I knew Groklaw needed more expertise in that area. Just like I knew the tech community can't get the legal part right, and I couldn't get the tech right without them, I know that what is needed next is a lawyer running Groklaw, and I have persuaded one to take it over.

The H: Are you retiring completely from the spotlight, or do you have any plans beyond Groklaw?

PJ: I am retiring completely from the spotlight.

The H: What next for Groklaw? Do you have any regrets? Any issues that might have been tackled more thoroughly or are still unresolved? Anything you would have liked Groklaw to achieve that it hasn't, or may still achieve? And where would like it to be in five years time?

PJ: No regrets. Maybe I wish I had been less naive in the beginning. I didn't know people as awful as SCO folk. In all my days on this planet, I never knew such people. And I won't miss them at all.

Sometimes I worry that, like the living dead, they crawl and lumber back to the village from the graveyard swamp and try some more damage and I won't be there to fend them off. Sounds like a nightmare, right? But it seems they are finished. Our research is quite complete now, even if they did try again. And it was either stop now or commit for the rest of my life, and even soldiers get to go home after their tour of duty is done. Others can carry on.

What I hope Groklaw will become next is the place everyone visits when they want to understand how the law and FOSS intersect. And I hope it will be able to cover more subjects, both in the US and around the world. The only limits to Groklaw are how hard people are willing to work and how many show up to do so.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive [ ].

Copyright 2011