Interview With Pamela Jones, Editor of Groklaw

Friday Nov 2nd 2007 by Roy Schestowitz
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The influential Groklaw founder talks about her attitude toward SCO, the limitations of crowdsourcing, and her experiment in “applying open source principles to legal research.”

When Pamela Jones, better known as PJ, started Groklaw, a Web site devoted to covering and explaining legal cases of interest to the Free Software and Open Source communities, she preferred to remain anonymous and showed no desire to become well-known. Groklaw nevertheless became extremely popular very quickly, and it soon established itself as the place to go for the latest developments in the SCO litigations.

It also covers news about patents, standards, licenses, and numerous other topics of interest to Groklaw's readers. It corrects misinformation, otherwise sometimes known as FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). And it's a site where a large group of volunteers do legal research.

Jones was recently honored with a Knowledge Masters Award for Innovation by the Knowledge Trust and the Louis Round Wilson Academy, an annual award given to individuals who "further the creative and innovative use of, and balanced access to, the world's recorded knowledge." She also was one of the five winners this year of a Google-O'Reilly Open Source Awards at OSCON, in her case for "Best FUD Fighter."

In this Q & A, she explains how Groklaw operates, what its purposes include, and where it is likely to head in the future.

Q: Groklaw appears to have established itself as an authority in areas where law meets technology. Can you foresee a point in the future where Groklaw will shift its focus away from Linux and open source in favor of coverage of issues like censorship, copyrights, and fair use?

Interview: Pamela Jones
“Personally, I have never wished for SCO's 'demise'...”

~ Pamela Jones, Groklaw

Pamela Jones: We cover copyrights and fair use now. Basically, Groklaw covers IP law, because that's my area of training, and I try to cover litigation of interest to the community, so I'm doubtful that anything would ever take us away from Linux and FOSS.

It's core. I don't think I'd ever expand into censorship. We don't cover politics at all on Groklaw.

Q: Many people have been anticipating the demise of SCO since its controversial litigation began. After 4 long years, signs of an inevitable demise started to appear and even materialize. Has the Groklaw community ever offered any sympathy to SCO? Was there an attempt to separate the managerial and legal aspects of SCO from more technical ones?

PJ: People say that now, that they always thought SCO would fail, but I remember it differently. When Groklaw began, as I remember it, we stood pretty much alone.

As for sympathy, I made a decision early on to concentrate only on the entities, ideas, and actions, not on individuals. I don't want ad hominem comments either. It's unseemly, hurtful, and unnecessary.

Personally, I have never wished for SCO's "demise," as you put it. I would be happier if they'd simply altered course and stayed in the Unix and Linux business. They certainly could have. It's sad to see people losing their jobs because of management decisions to chase such a strange litigation strategy. Had SCO chosen to stay in the Linux business, they could have made money. Red Hat is.

If FUD over Linux was the goal instead, then SCO must bear responsibility for the results of that decision. I can't admire such a course. But, yes, I feel for the people as people. I don't lose empathy for fellow humans, even when I disapprove of their conduct.

However, SCOsource was in my opinion an improper attempt to make money from the hard work of others, without a legitimate basis, and to make the market believe Linux was legally tainted when it was not. And had it been successful, it would have caused a lot of harm to human beings and businesses in the FOSS community, who have every right to compete in the marketplace without such harassment. So I have empathy for them even more so.

It's a bit like seeing an adult steal candy from a baby. If you saw that adult with a flat tire, you'd stop and help him. He's a fellow human in distress, after all. But when he grabs the baby's candy, you'll still step in, because it's wrong for a grownup to steal a baby's candy, just because he wants it and thinks he can get away with it.

Next page: Which cases does Groklaw have its eyes on?

Q: Looking ahead, which cases does Groklaw have its eyes on? Groklaw seems to be already engaged in covering the NetApp-Sun Microsystems case, but are there other cases that will consistently receive attention?

PJ: Obviously, patent cases are now stage front and center. But we also have an arrangement now where any lawyer can contact me and ask technical questions of our members. I mean any, by the way. Let's say he or she faced doing a deposition of a technical expert. Asking Groklaw for tips in advance can be helpful. It's an added resource.

Q: What would be your advice to firms that hold what they believe to be valuable intellectual assets that bring no revenue? Should these firms consider resorting to legal action? Does it matter if the legal case might invoke the wrath of open source development communities?

PJ: I don't give legal advice. But on your last question, I think it's not a question of the community's "wrath." It's a question of knowledge. If a company files a silly lawsuit, the community will recognize it for what it is.

What is so unique about IP and FOSS is that computers are a relatively recent thing. So is FOSS. So there are people still alive who remember very well the early days, the beginnings. That has implications for prior art searching, for example. It had implications in the SCO litigation, because when SCO made broad claims in the media, there were people saying, "That's not so. I was there. It was like this..."

That can make a significant difference legally.

Interview: Pamela Jones
“I do believe that people want more information than they get from the traditional media..."

~ Pamela Jones, Groklaw

Q: Groklaw's coverage of OpenXML/ODF affairs has become symbolic of the powers of collaboration in an Internet era. It showed that stories can explored at a level of detail that is overlooked or unexplored by traditional media. Do you think that journalism can be improved by pooling the knowledge of more people? How about reduced editorial control? Are the benefits outweighed by the danger of publicly exposing details that are too sensitive?

PJ: I do believe that people want more information than they get from the traditional media. Groklaw is Exhibit A for that proposition, and with no space constraints, why not give it to them? You don't have to have reduced editorial control just because a lot of people are contributing. The Linux kernel, for example, is like a pyramid, with Linus and Andrew Morton at the top of the point. Anyone can contribute, but nothing goes into the kernel ultimately unless they approve it, so there is a filtration system. Groklaw is the same.

And Groklaw isn't just journalism. That is part of it, but it's not all of it. I'm not trying to be the New York Times. It's a collaborative site, where we research together.

Legal research as a group does present questions of sensitivity. There are rules by the courts sometimes about confidentiality. I invariably abide by those rules. I can imagine, however, a circumstance where Groklaw might petition a court for more transparency, but it hasn't happened yet. But I know that being able to keep certain matters confidential in the legal process is very important. Here's why: anybody can sue anybody. They may not win, but they can start the process. Now, if all you had to do to spill everyone's private life and business matters in public was to sue them or be sued, no one would want to participate in the legal process, even if they had a legitimate complaint. It's vital that individuals and businesses be able to resolve disputes without all their private business secrets and personal matters being made public. So I respect those rights, just as I'd want my own privacy to be respected.

That's a difference between doing Groklaw and writing software. There aren't such privacy issues in software development.

Next page: Crowdsourcing -- and the need for a "pyramid structure"

Q: About a year ago, the notion of "crowdsourcing" was introduced. It was akin to open-source reporting and a few months ago, some people argued that it failed miserably due to lack of consensus, hidden interests, and complexity. What would be your advice -- from an editorial point-of-view -- to those who fail to coordinate a joint (or multi-player, so to speak) publication? What model would be most effective?

PJ: I'd say you need a pyramid setup in any collection of information. Consensus can't work as well. Some people know more than others about a subject, so they need to have more influence. That is the essence of a meritocracy. You want no barriers to entry to contribute information. That informational flow must be totally free. But as it filters upward, you need people you can trust, who actually are skilled in that area and have the expertise to know what is valuable information and what is junk. And you need a person at the end of the process to make final decisions. That is how Groklaw is set up. So is the Linux kernel.

It certainly can and does happen that folks contribute information without even knowing why it matters legally. I might recognize an angle that they have no awareness of because they have no legal-related training or experience, but they still end up contributing the most meaningful piece. Or members will see some technical point that I absolutely wouldn't have noticed or known about at all. I have people who are skilled in that area to advise me on picking out the gems there, and I am not so foolish that I overrule them, because I know what I know and what I only sort of know. So everyone contributes what they know best. Over time, I find out who is good at what tasks, so that's what I ask them to do more of.

But you have to have a final decision maker, or a group. Otherwise, you end up doing nothing but discussing process and whether or not to do Z or X or Y.

Q: The depth of coverage and scale of Groklaw is immense. How do you manage to locate past writings of yours and organize resources that you use to conduct research?

PJ: I wrote it, so I remember it. I know how Groklaw is set up, and I remember the general order of events, so I can go through the Archives by date or by keyword. We also have a search engine. Computers are wonderful, but so is the human brain. When you have a lot of human brains working together, it's powerful. The other day, for example, I wrote an article about a SCO filing, and I didn't remember one very important detail about the APA between Santa Cruz and Novell, an amendment which altered the terms. An anonymous reader left a comment that reminded me of that amendment. That happens a lot. And when it happens, I'll add it to the article, to make it more useful not only now but for historians.

Interview: Pamela Jones
“That is the secret of Groklaw, so many thousands of skilled people who each may remember one piece of the whole..."

~ Pamela Jones, Groklaw

That is the secret of Groklaw, so many thousands of skilled people who each may remember one piece of the whole that the rest of us forgot and when you add all such contributions together, it's really valuable. I learn a lot from Groklaw myself.

Q: Have you ever had any regrets about being unable -- whether because of time constraints or physical capacity -- to closely follow and cover a particular issue?

PJ: Yes. There have been several cases I wanted to follow in more depth but just lacked the time.

Q: At times, Groklaw appears to set its focus on ethical and humanitarian causes. Were there any times when you felt like you could serve your readers better by stepping outside the realms of technology altogether in order to cover completely different topics? Let's assume that preferences, background, and interests of the existing readers are not an issue here.

PJ: No. I like doing what I'm doing. I care about being a decent, ethical person, and obviously the entire community felt a moral outrage at what SCO was doing, so that's probably why you got that impression, but Groklaw isn't cause-based. I'm realistic, and I have no illusions about remaking the world. I'm merely trying to explain one piece of it.

Groklaw is an experiment in applying open source principles to legal research, and that is where we'll keep our flag planted. It's not about causes. I don't belong to any such organizations personally.

I try my best to explain in accessible language what is going on in the courts. That's it. There is one cause, I guess you could say. Groklaw is intended to be a bridge between the legal and the technical communities, so they can cooperate.

When they each understand what the other does and why, they can help each other so that eventually court decisions are more solidly based on how the tech actually works, what it can and can't do. I see that cooperation as an urgent need, for two reasons: everyone today can be a publisher on the Internet. So everyone needs to understand how the law works. And second, computers and the Internet are new enough that many lawyers and judges are not yet up to speed on the tech, and that can result in decisions that are unworkable or just legally bizarre. That causes pain, cynicism about the law, and even market results that are counterproductive and very costly to fix. So spreading technical knowledge to the legal community and legal knowledge to the tech community is ultimately helpful in preventing such problems. That's the hope, anyway.

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