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Tuesday, 12 April 2011 12:59

Groklaw: the good, the bad, the ugly

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The website Groklaw, which waged a tireless campaign against the SCO Group after it filed a case against IBM in 2003 for "misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference, unfair competition and breach of contract, has decided it is time to put up the shutters.

There will be no more articles written on the site from May 16 as the case against SCO has come to the stage where the company is highly unlikely to do anything but dig its own grave as proceedings drag on.

The initial case also made allegations that IBM had made concentrated efforts to improperly destroy the economic value of UNIX, particularly UNIX on Intel, to benefit IBM's new Linux services business.

Later on, SCO filed a case against Novell, claiming ownership of the UNIX copyrights. The cases got more and more twisted and impenetrable as they went along, plumbing the bowels of US law, always a cesspit where the ugly often come out smelling of roses.

Groklaw, run by a paralegal named Pamela Jones, made a concerted effort to dissect the legal documents which the case threw up and gathered a big cheer squad around it, a wildly partisan mob that cheered as each disclosure that made SCO seem unlikely to prevail was published.

After nearly eight years, as Groklaw gets set to close shop and merely serve as a repository of information about the case, the reaction from the free and open source software community has been, by and large, positive.

There are legions who praise it as an outstanding work of journalism which it very definitely is not. It is and was a partisan blog which highlighted the anti-SCO case and made a good fist of doing so. Had it been a journalistic initiative, there would have been at least some effort to provide the other side of the case; this, Groklaw never did.

There are times when it is not necessary to provide the other side of the case to qualify as journalism; as the great Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk put it, if he were covering the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, he would only write about the survivors and not give the SS point of view. Or if he had been clambering over bodies to report something like the Sabra-Shatila massacre, he would have no time for the Phalangists who murdered Palestinians at the camp under Israel's orders.


But the IBM-SCO case is not such an extreme case. It was a bunfight between two companies, and that happens all the time in the US, the most litigious country in the world. SCO did make several claims that turned out to be just that — claims — but then which company does not make them in the context of a lawsuit?

SCO's legal heroics were sponsored by several companies which wanted to impede the growth of Linux and it was not surprising that it turned out that Microsoft was leading the gang. But then Groklaw, which was often suspected of being funded by IBM, never divulged its source of funding either - no matter where the funds were coming from, any disclosure would have certainly made the website and Jones look more like an everyday campaign rather than a soul-stirring, idealistic crusade.

These days, many companies run their own blogs with a constant stream of positive messages about themselves and their products; if Jones had divulged the source of her funding — there had to be someone paying the bills as it was a full-time occupation maintaining and writing for Groklaw — then it is highly unlikely that the website would have had anything like the status it enjoyed during its tenure.

Jones chose to maintain a low profile, but that is perfectly understandable and does not in any way diminish any credibility she had; she was subject to some nasty attacks by writers from the mainstream tech media in the US and thus one can understand her reluctance to come out in public and gain a profile for herself.

Much of the acceptance that Jones gained was because a great deal of the coverage of matters FOSS comes from groupies – people who exhibit uncritical acceptance of the genre and all that it involves. If is, of course, easy to argue that the attacks on FOSS justify this kind of coverage – in my book, that would be tantamount to arguing that the terrorist attacks on the West justify the curtailing of fundamental freedoms.

One other negative aspect of Groklaw was the shrill, self-righteous tone adopted by Jones – the I-am-right-and-the-rest-of-the-world-is-wrong attitude, eerily similar to the Dubya school of thought where anyone who did not back his silliness was against freedom. Gloating and I-told-you-so is not the best way to publicise a cause; there are more subtle and more effective ways of doing so. Her approach often smacked of childishness.

That said, Groklaw served a purpose and has outlived its usefulness; calling time is an acknowledgement of this.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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