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Writing Linux History: Groklaw's Role in the SCO Controversy

Writing Linux History: Groklaw's Role in the SCO Controversy

What is Groklaw's actual influence? Is it a soapbox for a bunch of wild-eyed zealots and naive idealists, or a serious attempt at -- in one supporter's words -- illuminating the darkness? While the site has attracted wide praise from most members of the open-source community, others dismiss or vilify it.

By David Halperin
03/01/04 6:30 AM PT

There's nothing like a good legal battle to whip up passions, and the SCO Group-versus-the-open-source-world dogfight is no exception. Rhetoric runs high. From the open-source advocates, it's "you're stifling free thought in the name of greed." SCO allies counter with "you're attacking the core values of capitalism."

As SCO president and CEO Darl McBride himself has put it, "The stakes are extremely high. The balance of the software industry is hanging on this."

The "this" in question is SCO's assertion that it owns some of the code now being used in Linux; its US$3 billion suit against IBM for copyright infringement; its attempts to convince enterprise Linux users to pay for licenses; and its threat to sue a noncomplying enterprise Linux end-user.

The cases now reaching the courts are complex because SCO's actions affect not just one competitor, but the whole open-source software community. As open-source advocates see it, SCO threatens their entire collaborative philosophy, as well as the legal cornerstone of most open-source licensing, the General Public License (GPL).

The Birth of Grok

Many who felt they had an interest in the outcome found it hard, at first, to get information about the opposing players' positions or the laws that underpinned them. In the words of one open-source developer, "Many of us who hold a personal stake in Linux -- either we helped write it or our businesses depend upon it -- were completely in the dark as to what SCO was claiming and what it meant to Linux."

Enter Pamela Jones and Groklaw. A paralegal, Linux programmer and self-described geek, Jones is passionate about the benefits of open, worldwide intellectual collaboration -- and dismissive of the ideas behind most proprietary development, which she says results in software that's "like petrified wood."

"Grok," as most of you probably know, is a Martian verb coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, metaphorically meaning "to understand something so intimately as to become virtually one with it."

When the SCO fracas began, Jones started a site where she presented the results of her legal research into the case. This site proved so popular with Linux and open-source regulars that she expanded the scope of the effort and moved it to a new Web site, Groklaw.net.

Case Law Focal Point

Groklaw.net hit the Web in May 2003, and, according to Jones, her readership doubled immediately. The site has become the primary resource for groups and individuals to research the legal labyrinths of SCO's disputes with IBM and others. Jones is now assisted by a team of legal researchers and Web gurus.

At the beginning of February, Jones was named Director of Litigation Risk Research at Open Source Risk Management, LLC, on a one-year contract to help develop an insurance product aimed at protecting open-source users. She will, however, continue to edit Groklaw.net.

But what is Groklaw's actual influence? Is it a soapbox for a bunch of wild-eyed zealots and naive idealists, or a serious attempt at -- in one supporter's words -- illuminating the darkness? While the site has attracted wide praise from most members of the open-source community, others dismiss or vilify it.

One Linux developer noted, "By serving as the focal point for documenting the case -- for example, through transcripts -- Groklaw educated many of us as to the exact nature of what SCO claimed." He went on to suggest that until about last May, he thought SCO could be right, but said he has "no doubt now that SCO's directors are either mistaken, or they're crooks." He thanks Groklaw for that.

Conversions like that one help explain why SCO defenders take a dim view of Groklaw. Blake Stowell, the company's director of public relations, says: "I think the unfortunate thing about Groklaw is that many people reference the site as a supposed 'credible resource' and take a lot of what is posted there as the absolute truth. I find that there is so much misinformation on Groklaw that is misconstrued and twisted that it's probably one step above a lot of the ranting and dribble that takes place on Slashdot."

Show Us Your Code!

One frequently raised legal point nicely illustrates the polarized views of the claimants. SCO has not yet revealed which portions of code it claims to own. Open-source spokespersons ask how SCO can press a case on the basis of evidence it won't reveal, and they have said that, if it is published and is indeed found to be the same as what's in the Linux kernel, they'll have no problem with removing it.

SCO's Darl McBride disagrees, saying: "This kind of cleanup is an Exxon-Valdez kind of cleanup. It's not simple."

In any case, one industry commentator points out that contractual agreements would prevent any public revelation of the code outside a trial. And, if it were removed from Linux, SCO -- its owner -- would never see a cent beyond initial damages.

Long-Term Litigation

That prospect pleases Pamela Jones, who has been quoted as saying, "Litigation isn't a long-term business strategy, even if you 'win.' It's a one-time payout. Then what? If you have no product people want, that's the final chapter, especially if people really don't like you and what you stand for."

It may be that kind of intransigence that leads SCO's Blake Stowell to hint at darker motives. "Doesn't anyone find it the least bit ironic," he asks, "that Pamela Jones lives ... less than 10 miles from IBM's worldwide headquarters, and that Groklaw is hosted, free, by a nonprofit outfit called iBiblio, which runs on $250,000 worth of Linux-based computers donated by IBM and a $2 million donation from a foundation set up by Robert Young, founder of Red Hat?"

"Call me crazy," adds Stowell, "but I somehow think that Pamela Jones isn't just a paralegal with nothing better to do with her life than host a Web site called Groklaw that is dedicated to bashing SCO. I think there is a lot more to her background and intentions than she is willing to reveal publicly. I believe that Big Blue looms large behind Pamela Jones."


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