LJ Archive


Open Legal Research

Pamela Jones

Issue #121, May 2004

One little Web site about a batty lawsuit became the tech news hit of the year. And Internet research can help clear the next legal minefield too.

Open legal research isn't a phrase in law dictionaries. Law firms normally are secretive and keep everything very hush-hush. What we've been doing at Groklaw is pioneering work, what Open Source Risk Management's Daniel Egger called “a new kind of collaborative, real-time, you-can't-get-away-from-us legal resource”. The Internet makes it possible.

Like a lot of ideas that turn out really to work, it was supposed to be something else but morphed. When I started, it was only me, one geeky paralegal who didn't like what The SCO Group was trying to do to Linux and decided to help. SCO seemed to be pursuing a strategy of delaying any test of its claims in court, while at the same time maximizing fear, uncertainty and doubt about Linux. A lot of my early work was finding evidence to rebut SCO's public statements—anti-FUD, if you will. I also did detailed research that I hoped would be helpful and interesting.

Readers started to show up, first a trickle, then a flood. Groklaw today has more than 4,500 members and a readership in the millions. Some of the volunteers knew things I didn't, especially about the code issues, but they didn't realize what they knew was useful legally. I decided to show them how to do legal research and how to identify useful evidence, so I posted legal research guides and links to sites and explained terminology, such as “promissory estoppel” or “slander of title”, by quoting from lawyers and judges and providing links to more information.

Groklaw's readers include direct witnesses to or even central participants in events described in court filings and public statements. When SCOForum happened and the debate began on what the code was, I simply wrote to Dennis Ritchie and asked him. When SCO claimed to own C++, I wrote to its author, Dr Bjarne Stroustrup, and he denied it publicly. When they claimed the ABI files, Warrren Toomey from the UNIX Heritage Society wrote a rebuttal article. The experts are alive and able to testify.

My volunteer Webmaster, Peter Roozemaal, switched Groklaw to Geeklog software and wrote some needed features to facilitate collaborative work. We have groups for different projects. I invite some to take on more responsibilities. “Dr Stupid”, for example, is my primary lieutenant now on all code articles.

One group tracks court postings of legal documents. Others go to the courthouse for paper-only exhibits, while another group OCRs, another proofreads and others research. Another group works on the quotation database, under Leif Jensen. Still another group transcribes press conferences and other events. IBM cited the group's Groklaw work in support of a motion it later won.

Attorneys, including Eben Moglen, Dan Ravicher, Mark Webbink, Dennis Karjala, Webster Knight, Lewis Mettler, Anupam Chander and others have helped with articles, interviews and behind-the-scenes news.

To offer one example of group research and interacting with living experts, one group of more than a dozen, led by Alex Roston, collected evidence showing that an important contributor to the Linux kernel was Tigran Aivazian, at the time an “old SCO” employee. He worked on some of the high-end functionality issues involved in the IBM case. Aivazian not only reviewed the draft of the Groklaw article, he went on the record that his contributions were with the knowledge and permission of his supervisor, explaining in writing that he “requested permission from Wendy (Development Director) before the release under GPL and she confirmed that SCO has no claims to this work whatsoever and has no objections to its release under GPL”.

Another group led by Frank Sorenson did an article on Linux ABI files, which in my opinion undercut SCO's ability to sue end users successfully. It was a research volunteer, Rand McNatt, who discovered that Novell was registering UNIX copyrights, a story Groklaw broke.

What's Next?

The whole SCO drama is really a “shot across the bow” for GNU/Linux, I believe, and I am sure more nothing-to-lose companies will launch suits against free/open-source code. I'm already looking beyond SCO in my research for OSRM and Groklaw.

We have begun a new project, the Unix History Timeline Project. OSRM is donating a portion of my time to it. This is a comprehensive oral history and documentation project covering the important events in the licensing and ownership history of UNIX. More than 30 other flavors of proprietary UNIX, other than AT&T's, are available. This is a call for anyone who wishes to send me whatever you think might be relevant.

We are determined to find and clear any potential minefields, if they exist. Within 48 hours of first announcing the project, we had more than 400 volunteers, including most of the published historians of UNIX and many of the people who actually contributed to UNIX in the first place. One wrote that I am now “the maintainer of the Linux anti-lawsuit kernel”. That's a good description of what our project is all about. It's a nice compliment as well.

I also have asked Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation to cover patents for Groklaw in the future. Our method obviously is well suited to finding prior art. If other attorneys wish to contribute to Groklaw, please contact me.

People are hungry to understand legal news, and they want to help. I believe open legal research works and that there will be many more projects like ours in the future. Groklaw is the proof of concept.

Pamela Jones is the Founder and Editor of Groklaw, which was launched in May 2003. She has just been named Director of Litigation Risk Research for Open Source Risk Management (OSRM), which is currently preparing to offer comprehensive vendor-neutral Open Source Defense Insurance to GNU/Linux users.

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