One of the amazing things about free software is how it has managed to succeed against all the odds – and against the combined might of some of the world's biggest and most wealthy companies. That shows two things, I think: the power of a simple idea like open collaboration, and how individuals, weak on their own, collectively can achieve miracles.
Open Enterprise has been writing about those miracle for some years now, mostly in the field of open source, but increasingly concerning open data and related areas. But there's one rather different open project that has achieved miracles, and which today celebrates its 10th anniversary:
We made it. A decade of Groklaw as of today. Who'd a thunk it?
When I started, I thought I'd do a little fiddling around for a couple of months to learn how to blog. But then all you guys showed up and taught me some important things that I didn't know, and vice versa I hope, and here we are, on our 10th anniversary, still going strong, together on a very different path than I originally imagined. The important moment for me was when I realized the potential we had as a group and decided to try to surf this incredible wave all of you created by contributing your skills and time. I saw we could work as a group, explain technology to the legal world so lawyers and judges could make better decisions, and explain the legal process to techies, so they could avoid troubles and also could be enabled to work effectively to defend Free and Open Source Software from cynical "Intellectual Property" attacks from the proprietary world.
And it worked! That's the amazing part. It actually worked. So far, so good.
That's a really good summary from Groklaw's founder, pj, of what the site and its community does and why it does it so well.
The main attack from the proprietary world was of course SCO - unbelievably, at the time that SCO started flinging around its baseless accusations, some were predicting Linux was in trouble, possibly doomed. Today, I suspect that most people don't even remember who SCO were – while using Linux-based Android smartphones to search on the Linux-based Google servers dozens of times a day.
And so it has proved with successive attacks. Remember how open source was doomed because of Oracle's lawsuit against Google? Or all the other "fatal" attacks that would see free software consigned to the dustbin of litigation history?
One reason none of those doomsdays took place was the intense scrutiny brought to bear by the Groklaw community on the facts of all these cases. Indeed, one of the key achievements of Groklaw is showing just how the open source methodology could be applied to law – an idea that had been floated before, but never realised with such success. As pj writes:
Group dynamics are awesome. Whenever there is a new need, somehow the right people show up and fill it. Whether it was meticulously demolishing SCO's claims, one by one, or doing patent prior art searching, or explaining that software is mathematics and hence unpatentable subject matter, or noticing what the real game is in the patent smartphone wars, you came through with competence, donating your knowledge, research, and skills to the group effort. And you did it entirely as volunteers, as a free gift to the world.
Along the way, Groklaw also grew into a fantastic resource for everyone trying to understand and fight the attacks on openness and freedom that used intellectual monopolies as their weapons. That includes some important discussions of why software patents just don't make sense, and should be abolished.
Talking of which, it's interesting that pj in her 10th anniversary post refers to the following recent decision :
I've been almost speechless ever since the CLS Bank decision was published. Did you notice I just couldn't write anything much for a while? That's a Groklaw first. I see the progress so clearly in that decision, in the reactions too, and I ponder with real satisfaction the possibilities. I never thought the message would spread so quickly, so every time I'd have to edit another article about what software is, I'd be asking myself, how many more of these will I have to do? I thought I was condemned to years and years more of it before we'd get this far, to tell you the truth, if it would in fact ever be enough to matter.
The CLS Bank decision concerned software patents, and included the following remarkable statement:
At its most basic, a computer is just a calculator capable of performing mental steps faster than a human could. Unless the claims require a computer to perform operations that are not merely accelerated calculations, a computer does not itself confer patent eligibility.
As pj comments:
That's almost right. What they don't understand yet, but we'll keep explaining until they do, is that all computers are like that. None of them do anything but 1s and 0s, and it's all mathematics, mathematical manipulation of symbols, nothing more magical than that. Not that mathematics isn't magical. It is. But it's not patentable subject matter.
So it seems that we are finally getting there, even in the US. And one person who has played a key role in getting us to this point is pj herself, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for starting Groklaw ten years ago, and for turning it into the indispensable project it is today. Many thanks for that, pj, and happy anniversary.