Pamela Jones is the founder and editor of Groklaw, an award-winning Web site that conducts complex legal research using an approach inspired by open source. What started out as a one-woman operation in 2003 has grown to a full-fledged community with hundreds of contributors and millions of daily visitors. Focused primarily on issues that concern the FOSS community, Groklaw has become a must-read source of news and information for legal and technology professionals.
We recently spoke with Jones about her site’s origins and how applying a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 license to her articles has helped her promote her work.
Creative Commons: What are the origins of Groklaw? What were your goals for the site when you started it?
Pamela Jones: I started by just trying to learn how to blog in connection with a job interview, and you have to write about something, so I wrote about what I knew and found most interesting, which is IP law, writing about cases in the news. I wasn’t expecting anyone to read what I was writing.
It wasn’t until people showed up in numbers that I realized the potential for applying open source principles to legal research. I understood that many of my readers knew more about tech than I did, and I knew more about the law than most of them did, being a paralegal. I also knew that lawyers are typically the last ones on the tech train, and I thought that it would be fun and creative to explain everything I knew about researching for a case and see if my tech readers would turn up information that would be useful. I was sure they could, if it was out there. At the same time, I thought lawyers reading Groklaw, and there are many of them, would benefit from understanding tech issues better. I saw myself as a mediator, introducing the two groups to each other, so they could be more effective together. It proved to be a successful experiment.
The idea was to follow a case daily, explaining as we went along. I started with several cases, and I watched to see which one seemed most interesting to people, and the SCO v. IBM case won hands down. So, after some time, I focused on that case, although we always had news of a general IP nature too, and eventually we covered patents and standards, anything that is of interest to the FOSS community. We actually have 8 or 9 topics now that we regularly cover, including one ongoing book, being written in installments for Groklaw by Dr. Peter Salus.
Our Groklaw Mission Statement explains what our goals were.
CC: How did you decide that Creative Commons licensing was right for your work?
PJ: Groklaw is a noncommercial site, and I knew I’d be keeping it that way, so it would always be independent. So my two interests were to disseminate information widely and to prevent others from making money from my work, when I wasn’t. I also wanted some measure of control over who used my hard work, but I wanted less than copyright provides, so it was a natural decision.
CC: What have been the benefits of using a CC license?
PJ: Groklaw’s articles, the ones under the CC license (sometimes individual contributors do choose a different license or straight copyright and comments are not under the CC license, so we provide an articles-only section for bots and those wishing to mirror) are widely mirrored and republished around the world. So my goal of widely disseminating the information was definitely achieved, remarkably so.
And another benefit is that I’m not annoyed with endless requests to reprint. Sometimes people who don’t understand the CC license will write anyway, so I truly see how time-consuming it would be to have to go through that with each and every person wishing to republish. It’s a real time-saver, well adapted to the Internet. And when Groklaw became popular, time became my least abundant asset.
It also has proven a protection. There have been a couple of times when articles were inappropriately reused by commercial entities, and I’ve been able to resolve such matters effectively.
CC: Are you surprised by Groklaw’s popularity?
PJ: Beyond words. I can’t tell you what a shock it is to see how many people really love Groklaw. I’m so shy by nature, it’s been an adjustment, a major adjustment, to learn to deal with it, but overall, I’d say it’s been good for me to have to grow. Or grow up. Finally.
It was a major, major adjustment for me, though, one that I still struggle with. I am sure, though, that part of Groklaw’s popularity is because of the depth of feeling people have for the subject. IP law has become important to everyone, because of the Internet and blogging. Anyone and everyone is now a publisher, so the laws affect us all, yet most people don’t understand the laws or worse, they misunderstand them. That’s not good. I thought about my family and all my friends, how they’d ask me to explain things in the news, and I thought, why not write just like that, to explain the process as if to a friend or family member over dinner who asks you, ‘Say, what’s this case all about? Why is such and so happening? What will happen?’ I might be just a paralegal, but I could at least explain the paralegal part. I love to write, it turns out, and I like helping and explaining, so it worked out. I do think that is the source of Groklaw’s popularity – that people are relieved to understand things that were like Greek to them before.
A half dozen of Groklaw’s readers have decided to go to law school, by the way. I love that, and I’m very proud of it, because part of my goal from day one was to share the love I feel for the law, and the respect I have for the process. And I think it’s terribly important that computer programmers and other tech-savvy people go to law school, so that someone can explain to judges (and later become judges) so decisions made will be based on tech comprehension and not on FUD or gross misunderstanding of how computers actually work.