10 years of defending Linux's legalities: Groklaw

A decade ago, SCO attacked Linux but it hadn't counted on running into a paralegal turned legal journalist named Pamela Jones and her Website Groklaw.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ten years ago, SCO decided to sue IBM and started a series of legal attacks on Linux. Their cases were pathetically weak, but CIOs and CFOs didn't know that. Thanks to paralegal turned legal journalist, Pamela "PJ" Jones and her Website Groklaw, executives who wanted to know what was really what with SCO's multitude of lawsuits soon learned of the FUD behind SCO's claims. SCO and its silent backer Microsoft hope for profits and slowing down Linux's corporate success would come to nothing, and SCO ended up in bankruptcy

Groklaw: 10 years of defending Linux and open-source legal software rights.

Now, in late May 2013, SCO's last, dying twitches continue in the courts and Groklaw continues to cover technology related intellectual property (IP) legal issues. Outside of the courtroom, Linux has become a completely mainstream technology, and Microsoft, thanks to its Android-related patent claims, actually profits greatly from Linux.

A decade after Jones launched Groklaw, Jones credited the community, rather than her own efforts, for Groklaw's success. She wrote:

If I take three things away from our experience, it's this:

1.) Education is never a waste,

2.) All of us together are smarter and more powerful than any one of us alone, and

3) FUD withers in sunlight. It only works when people lack accurate information.

Group dynamics are awesome. Whenever there is a new need, somehow the right people show up and fill it. Whether it was meticulously demolishing SCO's claims, one by one, or doing patent prior art searching, or explaining that software is mathematics and hence unpatentable subject matter, or noticing what the real game is in the patent smartphone wars, you came through with competence, donating your knowledge, research, and skills to the group effort. And you did it entirely as volunteers, as a free gift to the world.

Groklaw was attacked with venom, of course. But here we are, ten years later, still standing.

Indeed, Groklaw stands and works still. I asked Jones, and yes there is a PJ , what she thought Groklaw's biggest accomplishment was. Jones replied, "Showing up as a group with all the research and proof that SCO was not right. It was one of those fortuitous moments in life where you just happen to be in the right spot at the right time with the right skills."

She continued, "If I had to pick just one thing, other than forming such a solid community, it would be getting permission to publish the BSDi settlement agreement [a lawsuit settlement that gave the Berkley Unix distributions the right to legally exist] , because it cut off SCO's claims at the knees. It had been secret for a very long time, so it was possible for SCO to say whatever it wanted to say and no one could contradict, until we published. That was the end of any realistic BSDi claims based on the agreement."

When I asked her about Groklaw's role today in a post-SCO world, Jones replied, "SCO isn't done, unfortunately. So we are not yet in the post-SCO world. It has just filed a motion with the US District Court in Utah to reopen the IBM litigation."

Neither Jones nor I can think of a way this can possibly have any impact on Linux, "But," Jones added, "Even when it's done, there is plenty to do regarding patents, which threaten FOSS [Free and Open-Source Software] in a much bigger way than SCO ever could. I view the smartphone patent wars as SCO II, with Microsoft playing the adversary part with patents that SCO played with copyrights."

Jones continued, "The target is still Linux, which is what Android runs on. Both SCO and Microsoft wanted to force users of Linux to pay them for alleged IP infringement, not only for the riches but to make Linux products cost more so proprietary software could compete. I see no difference, except Microsoft is a more serious adversary."

Indeed, Microsoft has been very successful in landing patent deals with Android device vendors. Companies find it easier to pay off patent claims than fight them. As a high-level executive at an Android-related company told me, “We use a lot of Microsoft software as well, and it was cheaper than fighting with them over our contracts. We want to do business, not fight over legal claims that have nothing to do with us."

Looking ahead for Groklaw's role in a legal environment where patents rather than copyrights are what matters, Jones said, "Now that Mark Webbink is co-editor with me, we have a lawyer on board, and that makes it possible to try things that I couldn't do alone. I hope to file amicus [friend of the court] briefs in patent cases as we go forward, for example to explain what software is and what it isn't. And we filed detailed comments with the USPTO [United States Patent and Trademark Office] when they asked the community to help them figure out some issues about patents. I wouldn't have done that before."

That said, "Our basic role is the same--to wither FUD away by presenting facts. And to help lawyers and judges to understand technology, so they can reach better decisions; and to help the tech community understand the law, so they can stay out of trouble and also so they know what information they have that can prove useful. We've played a role in finding prior art, for example. That would have been impossible if folks didn't know what constitutes prior art. So I try to use cases to explain the legal process."

Jones noted that while SCO has been on the back-burner, "We covered the OOXML/ODF [OpenOffice XML/OpenDocument Format) standards process in deep detail, so we now understand that area. The exact role we play depends on events, and you can't predict that. I never could have predicted that Oracle would sue Google the way it did. We covered that case in detail too. We covered the Apple v. Psystar [Mac clone] litigation fully too. We covered the Novell v. Microsoft Wordperfect litigation too, and the Apple v. Samsung and Microsoft v. Motorola patent cases."

So, Jones concluded, while "SCO hasn't been the center of Groklaw's world for a long time. I'm sure there will be such cases for some time to come, as proprietary software vendors find their world turning upside down."

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