Pamela Jones, PJ, is a lady, who might be young and blonde or old and grey, who might live in upstate New York, or maybe it was Jersey, and who, on occasion, might or might not wear a red dress. She’s also someone who took on one of the greatest evils of our technological culture, and won. OK, it wasn’t just her, any more than it was just Joan of Arc who drove the English out of France. She didn’t even command armies, the way Joan did. In military terms, what she did was organize a guerilla war that bled the enemy dry while the big guns of companies like IBM rolled over their main force. And thereby hangs a tale.
Back in the day, there was a pretty cool company called The Santa Cruz Operation, or SCO, for short (for anyone from the South Bay Area who’s been to the beach at Santa Cruz, the name says it all). They built a version of Unix that ran on x86 chips, the kind you use in your PC — this was pre-Linux. Alas, SCO fell on hard times, and eventually was bought out, by a company called Caldera Systems. Some years later, Caldera, now The SCO Group, also fell on hard times, when their server software wasn’t selling the way they thought it should. Instead of winding up their software business, or reinventing themselves as a beachwear company, they decided to become copyright trolls.
The way they did this was to start suing people who used or contributed to Linux (which by now was not only A Thing, but Quite A Thing) — IBM, Novell, Daimler Chrysler, AutoZone, claiming that among other things, SCO owned Unix and that code donated to Linux by companies like IBM included SCO-owned code. The apparent plan was to get the deep pockets to give them lots of money to go away, and to gain control over Linux. If open-source Linux was destroyed along the way, well, that’s just a side effect of doing business in today’s USA. This was a direct attack on everything the hacker culture holds dear, and I’m using hacker in the extremely positive sense.
In early 2003, within two months of the initial suite being filed, a retired paralegal named Pamela Jones started a website called GrokLaw, intended to collect all documents and evidence associated with the SCO offensive and to rally the technical community to the support of Linux.
She became SCO’s worst nightmare. Every time they would make a statement, someone out in the technosphere would find an original document that proved the statement false, send it to PJ, and she would post it on GrokLaw. Every time a SCO expert witness said something, there were dozens of technical experts who would write to PJ refuting it. Many of them were on the order of “I was there, and this is what really happened…”
PJ was scrupulously honest. Notice that I did not say even-handed — even-handed today means finding some weasel-worded way to say “both sides do it”, or “the other side has a point”. She never believed that. No-one who understood the industry believed it. She published the documents in the case and let the chips fall where they may. It’s just that none of the chips fell SCO’s way. The fact is that SCO was evil, lied, knew they were lying, and didn’t care. They kept getting outside funds (cough – Microsoft -cough), and kept running the case long after it was obvious to all that they were defeated. At the end, in January of 2007, they told the Utah judge that there was no need to establish an escrow fund for things like the licensing fees the judge had awarded to others. No fund was necessary, because they were a profitable, operating business, with no intention of going bankrupt. In September of 2007, in New Jersey, they filed for bankruptcy.
PJ’s punctilious sense of honor hurt her in many ways. In some cases it was simple smear tactics by SCO and their hireling press. In others it was more direct. Once, she was offered a job, with a company called Open Source Risk Management. SCO immediately said she was trading on her fame from GrokLaw. She resigned. “I kept coming back to the same thing. If my working for OSRM is doing harm by creating FUD possibilities, I need to remove that issue. Money is nice, but integrity is everything.”
Pamela Jones is an extremely private person. One might say she has a pathological need for privacy, but I refuse to say anything bad about PJ. Throughout the whole guerilla war against SCO she refused to come into the limelight, even to receive any of the multiple awards that GrokLaw has been given. But GrokLaw runs on email, and if you’ve been following the reports of the attacks by NSA and the Obama administration on the 4th Amendment in general and email in particular you know there is no way to remain a private person and still use email. None.
So today, in a statement she posted at 2:30AM, PJ announced that she is shutting down GrokLaw.
You may not like her decision. You may not agree with it. But it’s her decision to make, in order to preserve her personal integrity. Unlike Joan, she was able to see her cause triumph. Unlike Joan, she was able to see that institutions that she revered, like The Law, were no longer able to protect her. Unlike Joan, she was able to remove herself from the fray with both her life and her honor intact. Like Joan, she set in motion something that would continue beyond her time. GrokLaw may be closed to new entries, but the site is still open. More importantly, she showed the technosphere that it is possible to win through collective action. It requires A Cause, but there are several of them out there, including protecting the privacy of email users. One day, perhaps, she’ll be back.