Legal matters may not matter for volunteers
March 4, 2011
A rough guide to the OpenMPE saga of this year: The group's website was hijacked for the holidays, then revived by fresh volunteers; it made a pitch for $50,000 of contributions; it has proposed new services; its source code was returned to HP by its ousted treasurer -- and the volunteers are arranging its return.
There’s nothing quite like a lawsuit to focus attention on a dispute. In the hours that followed the OpenMPE announcement that it’s been sued by former board member Matt Perdue, more people commented and called about the volunteer group than any taking notice of any new services, files or elections. Somebody called to quip that any suit filed pro se (without a lawyer) is Latin for “you lose.” A lawsuit is sometimes a black and white battle over something that matters.
Except in this matter, Perdue v. OpenMPE et al, the suit might not matter at all. Whenever this lawsuit gets a hearing in a courtroom, either for a chance to dismiss it or otherwise, the two sides will have genuinely joined in battle. Until then, the unprecedented suit of a volunteer board by a former member won’t settle much of the future for this volunteer group.
It’s no fun to have to tell a story without an ending. Whenever a journalist is asked what’s going to happen, and we have to answer “it’s too soon to tell,” you can see the asker’s eyes roll. I’d be guessing to say I figure the suit is going nowhere, or that OpenMPE will do the same in 2011. The most interesting part of this dust-up is that Perdue says he’s defending the right to let OpenMPE make a difference to the community, and keep the group open. Lawsuit damages will kill OpenMPE. In a situation like that, you apparently need to threaten a life to make life-saving changes.
Wadsworth isn’t alone, either. Paul Edwards, who gave over six years of service while OpenMPE argued with HP about the 3000’s “end of life,” believes the group is at the end of its life now. Like Wadsworth, Edwards believes that if a business model had been offered a year or two ago, OpenMPE would either be on its way to success or hitting the wall they still must scale to go corporate. Edwards has got a viewpoint unique to anybody who’s steering the OpenMPE group. He served as an Interex director back when that group had a $10 million budget and plenty of mission to pursue.
Another element that’s interesting in this story is how passionate people are getting about a volunteer group. Perhaps it’s because about one year ago HP sent MPE/iX source to Perdue’s offices, along with a $10,000 invoice. The source is a live wire to some community members, people who don’t really feel comfortable with any source in the hands of developers to create patches. Patch control, they say, is going to be very hard to coordinate by now. The problem with that argument is that those patches are already out of the bottle, and there’s no putting them back. Even if OpenMPE’s source code remains back in California at HP offices, where it resides today, the world of 2011 will have custom patches requiring workarounds from software vendors.
People have written me, much off the record, to check in with their versions of the story and their beliefs about the future. So much that I feel like I’ve read a good-sized novel, but a story with less sense than savvy, and without a climax.
Then there’s the stories that are spread with the goal of influencing the reader by implication. I didn’t hunt these down; they were offered. Two newspapers in San Antonio reported at length on Perdue’s 2009 battles within the San Antonio Tea Party. The accounts in the daily, and the alternative weekly, tell stories of a man who’s been on a board which no longer wanted him as a member, and so reorganized just to ensure he wasn’t part of their efforts, after a big-name event that he hawked hit the wall. Not long after that bust-up, the website for SATP stopped working, so there’s that echo in the OpenMPE saga.
Perdue’s story in reply to openmpe.org going dark on his watch is he was never contacted about the matter, never told he was voted off the board, didn’t have his emails returned and didn’t have exclusive access to the domain management. (There's a flaw in that logic, it seems; if he was still a member of the board, then the duties of webmaster would include keeping the site online.) There were no lawsuits between San Antonio Tea Party factions, but appearances from the stories published by the San Antonio papers paint a picture of a volunteer whose ardor had exceeded his civility. It’s hard to square any other conclusion with invective like “a spoiled child stomping your feet in a temper tantrum because you cannot get your way instantly,” or invoking promises of FBI investigations as a matter of course. (Thing about the FBI: It never confirms an investigation, but using the implication suggests some guilt.)
I’ve written so very much about this group from the first month of its existence onward, and I believe the results of its talks with HP 2002-08 will stand up on their own. HP wouldn’t have licensed source or done a dozen other things it added to its exit plan from the market, unless a team of volunteers was hectoring the vendor to think through every detail. There can’t be many who believe HP revised its exit plans on its own.
But like some of you, I’ve sent a few hundred dollars to OpenMPE to help it buy that source license — and one year later, that code is back at HP’s office. It might return, but it’s not clear at this point why it needs to make another appearance. Not any more clear than HP’s plans to enable emulator HPSUSAN numbers, or why this bunch of several dozen volunteers (so far) insists on becoming a corporation. If you think of this volunteer effort as a start-up, it’s on the carpet for its third round of venture capital funding, even if it’s just $50,000 this time.
I wrote my version of this story for our print edition on Valentine’s Day, a celebration of true love. If you love somebody you write a valentine to tell them. The finale to this volunteer love affair with the 3000 will be written soon enough. The ultimate chapter may arrive too late to matter any longer.