Groklaw: Don't go home, go big

Introspection by Groklaw founder signals time for a change.

Over my holiday break, I read with some interest the self-examination conducted by Pamela Jones in her Christmas Day article on Groklaw.

At issue? Her (understandable) frustration at being instrumental in putting a stop to the SCO v. everybody lawsuits, and then watching Novell, a direct beneficiary of Groklaw's involvement, turn around and set up a patent purchase agreement with a CPTN Holdings, LLC, a consortium made up of four companies (Apple, EMC, Microsoft, and Oracle) with a less-than-friendly history with free and open source software.

On a personal level, I can certainly agree that this would be disheartening, to say the least. For Jones, it is much more: "Yes, I'm furious. Or I was. I always tell you the truth. And the truth is I felt used and abused," she wrote.

Professionally, however, I think the time has come for Jones to seriously reevaluate the roles she and her team of Groklaw volunteers have within the free and open source community. I do not feel that such a reevaluation will or should end with the closure of the Groklaw web site, but change must indeed come and it may be painful.

Over the years, the role of Groklaw has slowly shifted from an outright anti-SCO blog to (as its readership grew) a centralized documentation repository for other ongoing lawsuits in and around the FLOSS community, complete with editorial commentary. The overarching goal of the site seems to have been relatively static: defend the FLOSS community against misinformation based on legal attacks.

To me, that's an important distinction. Groklaw did not directly stop the SCO lawsuits; that was done by the lawyers, judges, and juries in the respective cases. From my vantage point, the important thing Groklaw did was put the breaks on business practices that could have been more immediately injurious to Linux, such as SCOsource, the IP protection scheme SCO started to generate more revenue from its alleged UNIX licenses and the alleged infringement of those licenses by Linux users.

Groklaw's deconstruction of the lawsuit and all of the related IP issues was enough to make potential SCOsource customers pause and have a "hey, wait a second" moment. In that crucial moment, they would realize that perhaps waiting to see how the lawsuits turned out would be a better idea... and not buy a SCOsource license to use Linux. That was enough to stop any momentum of SCOsource revenue, and ultimately would make it a lot harder for SCO to fund its case.

In a world without Groklaw, would Novell, IBM, and Red Hat defeated SCO? Based on pure facts, it's likely that SCO would have been defeated anyway. But a better-funded alternate-universe SCO would have made that legal battle even more arduous and convoluted than the one in our own universe. And certainly the commercial success Linux has enjoyed in the last decade would have been far more muted.

The problem is that in the short term, Groklaw's mission (stopping SCO from hurting Linux) has basically succeeded. Yes, there are pending appeals from SCO, but Jones is concerned that any efforts to continue the fight against SCO will only serve to help companies like Novell. Other suits are out there, but right now the community interest for those seems to be waning. And, I suspect, Jones' own interest might be waning: she has been at this since 2003, while facing several personal attacks along the way. The potential for burnout has to be very real.

When one person, any person, gets so wrapped up in something and then has to deal with the lack of that issue in their lives--even if they have won--it has a profound effect.

My most constructive suggestion would be for Groklaw to become a more community-run site. Instead of being a strictly one-person show, perhaps a shift to a more collaboratively run organization is possible. There is precedent: Linus Torvalds is still leading the Linux kernel development, but over the years he has delegated a lot of responsibilities to the various kernel maintainers. Surely there are those in the Groklaw community who could step up and fill similar roles for Groklaw.

I believe this approach would enable Groklaw to dedicate more time to covering all of the different legal issues surrounding FLOSS these days. In effect, it would become a meta-blog, like Huffington Post, or Engadget, or what have you, with a focus on FLOSS legal battles.

Change isn't easy, but it can be an opportunity to do something bigger than you had ever planned.

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