Interview: PJ on the beginning, ending, and future of Groklaw

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Over the last eight years, Pamela Jones, known as "PJ," wrote volumes at Groklaw—first as a blog about the holes in SCO's claims, then increasingly as a place for wider commentary on the legal issues facing Linux and open source. To summarize the site's mission statement, Groklaw was a full legal news resource, "acknowledged and used by all the parties, including SCO." But it was also a community—a place for open source believers to gather, learn, and share.

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Last month PJ announced that because SCO as we knew it is no more," she would stop publishing new articles today, May 16, Groklaw's anniversary. Now she's handing the reins over to Mark Webbink, former general counsel at Red Hat, law professor, and board member at the Software Freedom Law Center, to create "Groklaw 2.0."

Here's what she had to say about Groklaw's past and her future.

What inspired you to start Groklaw? Did you anticipate the audience it came to appreciate?

When I started, I was literally just practicing for a job interview. I had no knowledge of the Internet, obviously, so I didn't know the whole world could see what I was doing. When people showed up, it was a shock, and the numbers--it was hundreds of people all of a sudden, then thousands, until we finally had to move to larger quarters. After I got more used to it, it was exciting too. Because when I saw the level of technical knowledge my readers had and how much they wanted to learn how the legal process works, I realized what it could mean, what we could do, if I could learn to ride the wave.

Where do you think Groklaw has been most informative and influential?

It's hard to praise oneself without feeling idiotic. But as a group, what we showed is that if the FOSS community gets behind an effort to do legal research, no single law firm can beat them. The community we built lived computer history. The gray beards are still among us, after all. So we have UNIX guys and we have Linux guys, the very people whose code was being fought over by corporate interests.

So we were a voice, a way for the community to point out what was not true, and they could point to the evidence that it was not true. Law firms don't have that, and you could see the difference. They might have an expert, but that person can't compete with a community like Groklaw's. They'd file a document with the court and within hours the community would have taken it apart and shredded it, and they were right, over and over and over.

What I am most proud of is our trial coverage in SCO v. Novell, the jury trial. That and being the ones to first publish the previously sealed settlement agreement from the BSDi litigation. I'm proud of the fact that the community we built is still strong, still ready to do whatever needs doing. Building and maintaining a community isn't as easy as it looks. Over the years, some thought they could do a better Groklaw, and they did try, but none of them continued or ever really took off.

If you were starting Groklaw again today, with the benefit of the experience you've had, would you do anything differently?

I was naive in the beginning. I didn't know people as venal as I was about to be writing about. And I didn't know anyone personally, except for one relative, who lied without any apparent pangs of conscience. So at first, whoever showed up to help was accepted at face value. Later, I realized that some were operatives working to destroy from within. It was a sad and creepy lesson to have to learn. If I were starting it up now, I would factor that knowledge into every part of what I built.

Why did you decide to discontinue working on Groklaw?

I'll still be working on it, just not doing articles. I want to finish the Comes v. Microsoft exhibit collection and fix some other loose strings, so the work stands the test of time and is truly useful to historians and lawyers.

I can't do that and write articles every day. And I have a number of personal and other work projects that I shoved to the back burner in order to do Groklaw, and now that the emergency for Linux is handled, it's time to prioritize in a more normal way. We won, the emergency is over, and I get to relax a bit now.

So that is part of it. But the most important consideration was this: I was born to write Groklaw, about SCO and the Linux kernel and copyright litigation. But the battlefield now has shifted to mobiles and patents. I thought seriously about that, and I recognized that I am not the right person to take the lead on that. I always hated patent law, and nothing I've seen in the last 8 years has altered my feelings. I hate software patents with a passion, I think they are destroying innovation in the US, and that they particularly threaten FOSS, the open development model being opposed to patents. I think software and patents need to get a divorce.

I consider that a serious enough matter that I thought modesty needed to inform me to stop, that others could fill the role and would if I did. Then when I announced I would stop, I was flooded with requests to find someone to continue, and I realized the community was right. It was irresponsible if I didn't try to maintain the community, their skills, in one place. And happily, we found someone. I think Groklaw will end up more important than it's been, actually, because Mark Webbink is lawyer, a FOSS lawyer, and a law professor. With him taking the lead, and his law students --and we hope eventually others at other law schools--joining the community, it can grow in the direction that is needed now. They can explain the law, and the community at Groklaw can help them understand the tech. It's what Groklaw is for, what I dreamed it should be--a place where the two communities can teach each other, so they can together hopefully help judges to understand the tech so they can reach better decisions, ones based on technical realities. So this is organic, part of what Groklaw is supposed to be, just the next step.

Part of Groklaw's success was realizing that we could contribute just as we are, without trying to be more than we were. But that means also remaining modest and aware of what we were not qualified to do. I always said the only legal advice I ever give is, Ask your lawyer. Well, now Groklaw is going to follow that advice and get a lawyer. It's a natural progression. And it's the right time, given Microsoft's rather obvious strategy of using patents against GNU/Linux.

How would you describe the relationship between Groklaw and open source?

Groklaw is an application of Open Source ideas to legal research. But Open Source doesn't mean a free for all. With the Linux kernel, Linus and his maintainers rule ultimately. Everyone can contribute freely, but as you go up the chain, there is an editorial process, so that the best get the most responsibility and the final say belongs to Linus. Same with Groklaw.

After there were threats and harassment, we had to be less open to the world about certain things, to protect everyone. That's not something open source software projects have to deal with, so the differences that sometimes people comment on are due to that distinguishing factor. For example, at first I'd ask people if they wanted public credit for their work. Lots did. Later, nobody did, but they still worked just as hard. So, internally we knew who deserved the credit and who should get more responsibility, but outside it was not apparent. Like a pool that looks peaceful on the surface but below there are currents flowing in all kinds of ways at once. Groklaw is like that. And it's proof to me that people don't volunteer for such projects out of ambition or a desire for credit. The community continued to work just as hard as before, and for absolutely nothing in return, just to make a difference if we could. Kind of like you see in communities threatened by a flood and they all go out and fill bags with sand.

I sometimes say that if the whole world was like the FOSS community, everything would be better. And I mean it.

What do you think are the lessons that Groklaw holds for open source and collaborative communications efforts in other areas?

That it works just as well for legal research as for software development, so long as you have an editorial process to decide what is accepted and what isn't and as long as you approach your particular task in a pragmatic way, recognizing that software development isn't like many other types of projects. But what is key is the ability to put together thousands of people all over the world and get them to work unitedly toward a common goal. It's a remarkable thing. I wouldn't have missed it for anything in the world, and I'll never forget it. When Groklaw would win awards, I'd always credit the group, and sometimes people would act like that was just pro forma. It was not. I certainly and absolutely could never have done Groklaw alone. There is a kind of dynamic to a large group that is as powerful as a tornado but in a positive way--when you let people show initiative and they send you their ideas and materials and evidence and personal experience and let them try things. All you have to do is provide a little direction. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but when it works, you can change a little bit of the world. Groklaw indubitably did.

Do you have any future projects, particularly relating to open source or technology, in the works?

My fervent desire is to leave the limelight behind and live a private life again. I always wanted that. Since I never planned for Groklaw to become Groklaw, it was a mixed blessing when it happened. It was fun, it was creatively exciting, and ultimately it was fulfilling in a way that I can't even put into words. Maybe this: I know something I did in this world actually mattered. It's quite a feeling. But as I said, it wasn't a plan, and I certainly have never been ambitious, and I didn't want anything from Groklaw except to be effective. Now that it is, I'm happy and satisfied. I never wanted to be "somebody" and fame repels me, frankly, and I've avoided it. Now, I have an opportunity to go back to my previous personal life, happy in the knowledge that we did what we set out to do. I'll be around in the sense that I'll be in the background until I finish the transition, training the new people, and finishing up the polishing of Groklaw's records. Then, it'll be me on my porch, waving at cars as they go by, and just living a relaxed and normal life again. I've never worked so hard in my life as I did on Groklaw, and I need, really need, to rest up a bit.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


Good bye and God bless PJ. Your news feed and comments are a huge part of my understanding in technology. I hope it will only get better as you say it will.

I, too, learned alot from following Groklaw. Well done, PJ, you will be missed.

PJ, enjoy your red dress.

Thank you.

Your such a lovely person. We will truly missed you!
Thank you very much for helping open source software communities.

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