The Death of PreCYdent: Is Free Online Legal Research Sustainable?
PreCYdent appeared on the ‘net in a blaze of glory and idealism. Using a search engine based on a propriety algorithm similar to Google’s PageRank technology, PreCYdent ranks case results by authority. PreCYdent’s search technology mines information in the “Web of Law,” which is a network of citations found among legal authorities (e.g., PreCYdent mines the law from law review articles and from the opinions of law professors). In other words, PreCYdent can “retrieve legally relevant authorities, even if the search terms do no actually occur or occur frequently in the retrieved document.” PreCYdent’s proprietary algorithm was so good that “even lawyers with a flat-rate license on Westlaw or LexisNexis may use PreCYdent in the interest of being thorough.” Along with being easy-to-use for lawyers, PreCYdent also managed to capture the general public’s interest given its intuitive user interface to the point that some individuals admitted to using PreCYdent before seeing a lawyer.
Side Note: For those who are particularly interested in the technical details on how PreCYdent functioned, Steven Robert Miller, a reference librarian from the Indiana University School of Law- Indianapolis offers a good summary.
Not surprisingly, the reviews were very enthusiastic. As one student reviewer wrote :
I was stunned by the results of my search for IPJ on PreCYdent. The top six cases were the leading U.S. Supreme Court cases I studied in Prof. Reimann’s jurisdiction class. Each of them is fundamental to an understanding of the application of personal jurisdiction in federal courts. I have never seen such a highly relevant set of search results on any electronic case search engine. Not in Westlaw. Not in Lexis. Not anywhere.
And, best of all, PreCYdent was free. That’s right, absolutely gratis.
As one of its founders, Professor Tom Smith noted,
We believe legal materials in the public domain ought to be public in practice as well as in theory, and to us that means available free and with effective search to anybody with an internet connection. We believe this model is commercially viable, but we also think it will make American and later other law available to interested persons all over the world, and promote the spread of the rule of law.
Yet, after a good run from 2006 to 2009, PreCYdent is no more. Citing lack of funds (donations and side ad revenue had run dry), PreCYdent shut down. With its demise, the question that reverberated across the web was this: was it feasible to keep something as incredible as PreCYdent online for free? Since PreCYdent, there have been a plethora of sites offering online legal resources as alternatives to Westlaw or LexisNexis. Some, like LoisLaw or Fastcase,offer legal databases for a small cost. Others, like Oyez or Justia, offer limited databases for free. Yet, no site (as of this post) has completely replicated PreCYdent’s precise model. The closest we have so far is Google Scholar, but that has significant drawbacks, most notably, the uncertainty revolving how comprehensive its materials are. For instance, a new case may appear on Westlaw within a day of its publication, but on Google Scholar, who knows? It could be a day or even a month before it appears online. And, of course, there is no way to tell if a case is still good law just by looking at it from Google Scholar.
The philosophical underpinings of PreCYdent still remain. The tension between the desire for free materials and the very real and substantial operating costs is palpable. Yet, on one hand, we have slow, yet steady strides towards eliminating pay walls with strong backlash against PACER charges and the like with sites such as Recap. On the other hand, we also have a growing sense that free just can’t be free. Even with internet ad revenues (which many experts including Professor Eric Clemons of UPenn’s Wharton School believe is failing), the expenses of running such a site like PreCYdent remains a daunting challenge in light of maintenance and staff costs. In the end, is a low-cost database the best we can do?
Meanwhile, here’s hoping that PreCYdent will resurrect one day.