The end of an era for a campaigning community

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by Bill Wallace

In May 2003. an American para-legal by the name of Pamela Jones (PJ) started a blog. She intended it as a demonstration for a job application for a client. As a theme she chose two of the most impenetrable subjects to outsiders, explaining the Law to Information Technology enthusiasts and professionals. The word “Grok” was created by Science-Fiction writer Robert E. Heinlein and means “to instinctively understand”. Earlier this year she announced that, on the eight anniversary of the blog, she would be closing it to new articles and that on May 16th 2011 it would effectively close.

Groklaw did not remain purely her own domain for long. Its launch coincided with a major set of lawsuits alleging that the free software Linux, which had grown from a student’s project to a major presence in business, was based on plagiarised code. To fully understand the tortuous machinations of the company that brought that case would require prescription strength pain killers and a great deal of patience, as it became apparent that a lawsuit could drag on for seven years with no real evidence and where the plaintiff in fact had established there was no copying before the trial had begun.

Although not the only interested party observing and assisting from the sidelines, Groklaw started by explaining the legal procedures, moved through to analysing the evidence and in the end sent observers to court hearings and a reader got the release of a previously secret agreement that did much to destroy the case against Linux.

While retaining the personal viewpoint of Ms Jones, she became the editor, rather than just the owner, and the scope of the site widened to encompass other issues. Although it might have seemed to outsiders that Groklaw was a haven for those who wanted their software and music free, it always advocated the position of rights holders, which meant sometimes pointing out why the big company was in the right. However, that position also meant that the community became involved in fights against so called “patent trolls”, companies that produce nothing but exist solely to litigate based on patents granted by the over-generous US Patent Office. Particularly for software, which many argue should rarely, if ever, be granted a patent. There most notable success was in a case that alleged that Linux infringed a particular patent. After a call for “prior art” a reader was able to supply 1985 Amiga computer that demonstrated the feature in question before the patent was granted.

If such cases do prevail, the effect would be to chill, if not stop completely, the spread of collaborative free or low cost software, as they could not protect themselves against lawsuits for  patent infringement. At present large technology companies maintain portfolios of patents and have an informal agreement not to sue each other in a form of Mutually Assured Destruction, although recent cases such as those between Apple and Samsung shows that the deterrent does not always work. If these cases had succeeded then the cost of business, especially on the Internet, would have increased and people may have found themselves having to pay an annual licence fee for even the most basic software at home.

If a measure of success for a news site, particularly a campaigning one, is the smears it get then Groklaw was successful. They were accused of being a front for IBM, they attracted the attention of journalists friendly to the company that started the anti-Linux lawsuit and one even published an alleged exposé claiming Ms Jones was a paranoid recluse. However probably the measure of appreciation that Ms Jones will treasure the most is the inclusion of Groklaw in the Library of Congress’s Historic Internet Materials Collections as part of its remit in “preserving and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress and to the American people to foster education and scholarship”

When Ms Jones announced the cessation of Groklaw some companies may have read that news with relief, however on the 16th May she announced that a new editor had been appointed, the appropriately named Mark Webbink. Mr Webbink is a lawyer and is an Executive Director on a project designed to help Patent offices in researching Prior Art, as well as being a Visiting Professor of Law at New York Law School. Groklaw has proven that an online community can make a difference, though less from some nebulous “wisdom of crowds” and more because it possessed a clear a sense of direction and managed to tap into its readers expert knowledge.