Eulogy for Groklaw

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 11, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

When I got up this morning, the news was all over Facebook and the free software news sites: Groklaw, the site that was influential in the SCO legal cases, will stop publication on May 16. It's news that I hear with decidedly mixed feelings.

Pamela Jones, the site's owner and chief writer, announced the decision in a post on April 9. "The reason is this: the crisis SCO initiated over Linux is over, and Linux won," Jones writes, although the last acts in the long drama are still being dragged out. "I kept going all these years because when SCO attacked in the media and in the courtrooms, there was nobody to do what we did. Only the community could have answered SCO, technically, because you guys lived the history of UNIX and Linux and you knew what they were saying was not true. So we spoke up and explained over and over until everyone understood."

Jones did not give many details about the personal reasons for the decision, except to say that, "I have some other things I want to get back to and a project I've wanted to get to for a long time, and I want to be able to wake up and not worry about what happened in the news." In addition, Jones says that, "The events recently in Japan deeply affected me, and it reminded me that there are some other things I'd like to accomplish."

Groklaw in its heyday

My first reaction is that an era has ended. I started reading Groklaw when I was in a consulting position with a company quickly headed for oblivion, and there were times that reading or hearing the latest on Groklaw was one of ways I kept my sanity. It was also part of my geek cred with developers that I understood the issues that Groklaw discussed. More importantly, Groklaw proved to my satisfaction that a non-developer could make a contribution to free software, giving me an example that eventually caused me to become a journalist.

In its heyday, Groklaw's influence and importance were unmistakable. Looking in one direction, it provided a clearing house for information that eventually helped to dismiss SCO's nuisance suits. No one had ever used the development techniques favored by free software so devastatingly in a legal case. Groklaw, more than any other project I can think of, proved once and for all that crowd-sourcing could be a valuable tool.

Just as importantly, Groklaw educated its readers in some of the realities of law, telling them when a procedural decision by a judge or a motion by a lawyer might be reason for concern, and when such things were simply part of the legal routine. At other times, Groklaw led its readers line by line through convoluted legal documents, explaining them with an attention to detail that few could match.

In its heyday (which I would put roughly between 2003 and 2008), no site could touch Groklaw in these areas. Groklaw fully deserved the Free Software Foundation's Free Software Award that it won in 2008, because it was doing things that no one else was doing, and doing them supremely well.

The latter years

Yet, for all my original admiration, I admit that I had stopped reading Groklaw with any regularity in the last couple of years. It seemed to have passed its most effective years, and its weak points were becoming more prominent as it floundered for copy outside coverage of the SCO case.

Groklaw's strength was always in aiding and explaining legal matters. Elsewhere, especially in business, the inexperience showed -- all the more because of the obvious expertise in the law. At its worst, Groklaw's writers seemed to have no idea how decisions were made in business, and often resorted to interpretations that came close to conspiracy theory.

In its later years, Groklaw too often seemed to fall prey to over-determinism. By that I mean that, given its mission to seek out and expose or debunks threats to free software, it increasingly tended to see threats everywhere. As a result, while I rarely found anything to disagree with in Groklaw's basic positions, increasingly, I found its conclusions questionable, or at least unproven -- and a sad decline from the quality of its analysis in the early days.

Among its readers, this tendency to naive paranoia became exaggerated, so that the comments became less and less worth reading. Probably, too, Groklaw inspired (with what degree of deliberateness, if any, I have no idea) sites like Boycott Novell (now TechRights), which mimicked the tone of Groklaw while drawing no distinction between the articles which were based in expertise and those based on naive speculation.

Often, this decline was accompanied by an increasingly prolix style. I found it increasingly hard to read the articles, and often could only struggle through to the end by doing the mental exercise of editing them to make them more effective. Perhaps those running the site have been growing restless for some time, or perhaps the knowledge of a loyal following encouraged less care? Or perhaps, in expanding into discussions of more diffuse issues than the SCO case, the writers became less focused and careful themselves. But whatever the reason, for the last couple of years, Groklaw seemed less effective than it had once been.

An example worth remembering

I do not make these comments in any spirit of ill-will or jealousy. Unlike one commenter on LWN, I see no reason to doubt that Pamela Jones exists, or is being reclusive for any reason besides a wish for privacy. Nor do I care if she is using an assumed name, or happens to be male.

Still, I do think that now is the time for Groklaw to quit. It is not ending at the height of its influence, but it is ending before it slides into complete irrelevance. That seems only sensible, especially if Jones' interests have shifted. Advocacy is a demanding job, and I can imagine nothing worse than continuing it when your heart is not completely in it.

Besides, I have never believed that a eulogy should be uncritical. If you have loved someone or admired something, you should remember the good with the bad. In Groklaw's case, that seems especially important, because I suspect that the strength of its legal analysis and its occasional wrong-headedness in other matters came from the same depths of emotion. Although I admire the first and regret the second, I suspect that we could not have had one without the other.

However, one way or the other, I will miss Groklaw. Nor, despite my misgivings, will I forget its basic lesson -- that individuals can make a difference, especially when they get together.

Comments

  • Groklaw credibility

    @Florian Mueller:

    Frankly, I don't care whether PJ is Pamela or 100 different persons. Groklaw credibility is and always has been pretty darn sound. Groklaw articles are rich wrt references - and I invite you to present where Groklaw gets its facts and references wrong causing Groklaw embarrasment.

    To be even more frank:
    The Google/Oracle GPL spectacle duly put in order by Mr. Torvalds, Mr. Moglen and Mr. Stallman hardly boosted your own credibility. Attacking Groklaw does not exactly rescue you from your Huffington episode.

    Your insinuations against Groklaw seems to be more problematic for your reputation than Groklaw's. Is it relevant to put the sticker clandestine somewhere? You seem to be the messenger - so why not reveal whose interests YOU represent?

  • Very good points and an accurate conclusion: it's time for Groklaw to go away

    The point I like best is that Groklaw's writings displayed a total lack of understanding of business realities. The avatar named "PJ" never claimed any other qualification than that of a paralegal. But to understand these issues requires a holistic perspective: it's about a combination of business, technical, legal and political factors. "PJ" admitted not to have a business and technical background; there were no signs of hands-on experience with political decision-making processes; and in the only field in which any qualification was claimed, law, the "person" only got to the level of a paralegal, in other words, wanted to become a lawyer but couldn't qualify.

    Interestingly, text analysis tools like Gender Guesser show that under the "PJ" pseudonym articles were published by at least two different persons (one male and one female). Professionals already identified years ago two distinct punctuation styles.

    "PJ" never published a picture; never appeared at an industry event; never disclosed a current or past employer or client. There are, of course, enough people out there who are credulous enough to believe those stories that "PJ" had to be afraid of something. Seriously, that made no sense at all. If someone wants to participate in public debates (even if "only" via online contributions to such debates), the general public is entitled to at least a minimum amount of background information.

    iTWire's Sam Varghese wrote a very good piece on "Groklaw: the good, the bad, the ugly". Recommended reading, especially page 2 of that article. He pointed out that Groklaw was obviously a full-time effort and had funding but never disclosed its funding sources.
  • Im gonna puke...

    Nice backhanded compliments there.
    Class.

    > and its weak points were becoming more prominent as it floundered for copy outside coverage of the SCO >case.

    The weakest of PJs articles is miles years ahead anything ever written here so I think we can let the community decide who does a better job. I got 5 bucks saying she wins this if it ever came to a vote..

    Im sure the Muellers and De Icaza's of the world are rubbing one out right now reading your poisoned praise to PJ. You spent years defecating on her and her work and your conspiracy theory jibes are about all you could impotently do, lacking the intestinal fortitude of convictions like his woman has.

    I hope that her greatest gift is to spur others to action, to defend the FUD that Linux and free software have to deal with on a daily basis.

    The SCO war is won but the battle of FUD will not.
    As someone who runs Red Hat, I was made aware by Steve Ballmer that my Linux distro is illegal and I owe Redmond money (also mentioning that Novell payed their extortion dues and are the only legal Linux). The same extortion scheme has been played out in the mobile world and now Microsoft collects money from LG, Samsung and others because Android-Linux is 'stealing' their IP.
    THAT will not change.

    Which is why another PJ or many PJs are needed.

    Too many impotent tech journalists out there to trust them to keep an eye on backroom deals and machinations. Oh wait, those dont exist... its all in our heads. Go to sleep now... everything will be ok.
    So easy to look for the easy way and repeat press releases.
    Doing work like PJ demands qualities that are hard to find.

    Long live PJ and the work she has done for free software.

    As for this smarmy post, Id say its an embarassment but then I take the source into consideration and let PJs work stand up for itself. It can defend itself against any detractors.
    I even have a fiver to back it up.
  • Groklaw / Boycott Novell

    I resent the comparison between theese two.

    I've been debating Foss/Linux for years and I hardly ever could refer to BoycottNovell because it was impossible to "separate the shit from the shuffle" (pardon my language). The any comparison I'm willing to do between them is that Groklaw may have played a part in educating BN into Techrights thus making Techrights SLIGHTLY less inedible.

    To this day Groklaw has proved to be a highly useful reference and corrective when entering into debates. Groklaw is still good at putting things into perspective thus providing sanitation of arguments providing good sources and a healthy analysis.

    I'm indeed positive to commercialisation of Linux and Foss. That's what I want, and I started off using Linux more than 10 years ago - as a paying customer. Linux as business is good, but that doesn't mean that businesses actions always are positive.

    Groklaw is a highly valuable corrective to potential harmful actions by Linux corporations.

    I am indeed deeply sorry for the loss of Groklaw's voice - Pamela Jones is one of the most important FOSS people ever, and definatly the one that have influenced me the most.

    Thank you Pamela Jones.
  • Money's running tight at IBM, along with everywhere else

    These things must come to an end, eventually.
  • Not stopping publication

    You should read PJ's post more carefully. She merely said "no new articles". The site will go on. Presumably she will continue to comment from time to time as well
  • The lesson of Groklaw

    I think the lesson of Groklaw is that the suits can no longer put one over on the nerds. Or, more precisely, the suits can never assume that those with enough first-hand knowledge to disrupt their plans for world domination will remain silent.

    Groklaw's power was that it formed a meeting place for those who knew enough to debunk the stream of distortions that "the SCO group" was putting out. Groklaw said, "show us the code", and called tSCOg out when they refused. Groklaw made the court filings available to those who could point out the misstatements contained in them.

    Groklaw proved that information is power.
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