In association with heise online

16 May 2011, 15:40

Groklaw – "The blog that made a difference"

A Q&A with Pamela Jones

with Richard Hillesley

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.

Next: Getting into free software

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