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Forcing the government’s handout?

In a move aimed to both add to transparency to the court system and to encourage federal and state governments to electronically publish their own court documents resource.org has plans to release a Report of Current Opinions (RECOP) through their law.gov site.  This report will include a free HTML feed of all slip and final opinions from the appellate courts of all states and  the federal government.  In addition tocurrent opinions the site has plans to release 3 million pages of 9th Circuit briefs and the first 10 volumes of the Federal Reporter.  Google has awarded the site a $2 million grant to help them realize their vision.

Resorce.org hopes that by providing the interface and initial infrastructure for publication that state and  federal governments will become involved and eventually take over publishing duties.  To encourage the government’s participation law.gov has is operating with a built in sunset clause.  Their reasons are twofold.  First the operating cost of publishing opinions is not insignificant.  Second, creators and contributors hope that federal and state governments will realize the impact they anticipate law.gov will have and continue to publish the opinions themselves after RECOP’s two years of operation has run its course.

Creator Carl Malamud indicated that the first wave of published opinions were to be up by January 11.  In my investigation of the site I could find nothing more than mission statements and directions of intent.  In order to evaluate how effective the site will be at disseminating information and at forcing the government’s had we will have to wait for the material to be published.  Though for the site to be a success, both in increasing transparency and in forcing the government to take on publication duties, the interface will have to be comprehensive  and popular.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 8, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    First off, great post! I was very excited when I read the notice that public.resource.org would be releasing HTML versions of all slip and final opinions of all of the state and federal courts, complete with full star pagination this year. Best yet, all of these opinions will be accompanied by a Creative Commons CC-Zero License, meaning absolutely no use restriction whatsoever. (As a copyleftist, I am a dedicated fan of Creative Commons!)

    I also think it is very important to emphasize that RECOP is a collaborative effort. To reach its goals, it has partnered with organizations such as Fastcase, Justia, Law.gov, as well as three universities: Cornell, Princeton, and Stanford. (http://www.techno.la/2010/12/articles/legal-research/recop-releases-court-opinions-with-no-reuse-restriction/) And, as Carl Malamud has noted, RECOP cannot and should not be a purely private sector ambition. Malamud has stated that:

    “[We] feel strongly that work on the Report of Current Opinions over the next two years requires the active participation of government partners, joining industry and the nonprofit sectors. We have placed active offers to work with institutions in all three branches of our federal government to help us make the feed better and to provide access to the public. We have established a milestone of July 1, 2011 by which government needs to step up to the plate and join us in helping make this service real. This service is expensive—$35,000/month for just the basic feed, not counting post-processing and hosting—and we can’t justify doing this if government is not taking the effort seriously.”


    Like Malamud, I don’t see RECOP’s “forcing the government’s handout” a necessarily bad thing. As I highlighted in my post regarding PreCYdent, providing complete, reliable, easy-to-use, and up-to-date legal resources is very expensive. Someone has to foot the bill. Our current model is having pay sites like Westlaw and its ilk, which operates on the you-use, you-pay scheme. The major criticism of Westlaw is its cost and in response, we have LoisLaw and other lower cost sites. Yet, the fact that there is a small fee is enough of a deterrent for the everyday lay person to learning about the law and keeping the three branches of government accountable. Only the very determined would bother to pay the fee, but then with that mindset, such a person would probably end up hiring a lawyer or go to law school. And, do we want to limit such a check on our system to a very limited set of people? Society is better if things basic to our governance is free and transparent. And, considering some of the things that we are willing to have the government be responsible for, I think it is fair to have all of us–through the government–take on the burden of paying for something that ultimately benefits us all by helping us keep the government accountable to us and removing one additional barrier to civic participation.

    Moreover, another dimension is pure economic efficiency. Having free legal information prevents needless and incomplete duplication. Consider Project Gutenberg, which has systematically uploaded (through massive numbers of volunteers–I typed up a novel once as a way to learn to type faster) every single book as soon as its copyright expires. Because of comprehensiveness, no one has bothered to try to duplicate this effort and goodness forbid, charge the public for it even with fancy bells and whistles. What people have done is offer suggestions for improvement and in some instances, even offered to provide for the improvements for free. Likewise, RECOP is potentially the next Project Gutenberg in that it is a one-stop place for researchers and the casual public to go for free, reliable access to all basic legal materials. And, if people were to desire Keycite or headnotes, it is still possible to pay for such services. Essentially, RECOP fills a niche that pay sites have been exploiting for years: access to information that is by its very nature, not copyrightable and all the while, profiting handsomely from it. However, there is one major difference between Project Gutenberg and initiatives like RECOP–one is for intellectual stimulation and enjoyment while the other is the foundation of our rights and has wide-reaching implications over our day-to-day life. Thus, it makes sense to remove as many obstacles that surround the free, online publication of our law

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