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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.

Next: Beyond PJ's Groklaw

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