Free Law Project To Promote Access to Law, For Free

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Court opinions and records are in the public domain, and therefore open to the public, of course. But not for free – just try to secure a case from PACER. UC Berkeley School of Information assistant professor Brian Carver and UC Berkeley alumnus Michael Lissner have taken the law into their own hands, so to speak, and have formed a non-profit organization called the Free Law Project with the goal of providing free and easy to access legal content for download. As can be seen from their About page, the idea is:

  • to provide free, public, and permanent access to primary legal materials on the Internet for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes to the benefit of the general public and the public interest;
  • to develop, implement, and provide public access to technologies useful for legal research;
  • to create an open ecosystem for legal research and materials;
  • to support academic research on related technologies, corpora, and legal systems; and
  • to carry on other charitable activities associated with these purposes, including, but not limited to, publications, meetings, conferences, trainings, educational seminars, and the issuance of grants and other financial support to educational institutions, foundations, and other organizations exclusively for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes as allowed by law.

The end result will look much like other research tools, in that it will offer access to current and historical state and federal court decisions via search interface, with alerts, advanced search and citator services. Another cool thing, they will use open licenses for their software –  Juriscraper and CourtListener.  Because they are open, anyone can take the software and make it do more, better, faster, more awesomer things. For instance, the ultra-interesting Ravel Law has used the Free Law Project databases to shore up its own content.

It has always rubbed me the wrong way that court documents and judicial opinions are supposed to be open, public documents but that you can’t get them without paying a gatekeeper. This runs completely counter to how the Internet does and should work, IMHO. This principle is what activist Aaron Swartz gave his life to promote. Making money off of access to the law reminds me of paying for bottled water. Why? We already pay for the systems that generate the resource.

Kudos to Carver and Lissner for doing their part to break down those walled gardens.

Government Docs on Kindle, For Free

Novel marriage of tech and exec – Amazon announced a few days ago (link here) that it would be adding the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget of the United States and the President’s Economic Report to Kindle as free, downloadable content. So, in under 60 seconds, you could be slogging your way through the “weighty” language written in e-ink.

All quips aside, this is precisely the type of e-reader use that gets me excited about the technology. While I don’t see myself giving up paper and ink for casual, fun reading, I am totally into the idea of shedding pages of documents, drafts, case books and reference guides for a slim 8″ by 10″ by 1/4″ tablet. Some readers already allow you to load PDFs and other types of docs for viewing. I an looking forward to the day that all of my professional reading can be done on an e-reader, although probably not a Kindle. I have my eyes on the upcoming tablets and more generalized content consumption devices.

For now, the government documents can be read and synced between the Kindle, Kindle DX, iPhones and  iPod touches running the Kindle app, PCs and soon, Mac computers and BlackBerry smartphones.

Hat tip to beSpacific.

Why Make a Federal Case of It? The Google Book Settlement Revisited

The Google book settlement: either you love it or you hate it. An interesting opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday returned the debate to my waking attention. I found the piece interesting due in large part to the insertion of comments made by Professor Larry Lessig regarding inefficiencies in the existing U.S. system of copyrights.

The piece identifies Google’s goal as restoring access to 60% of books under copyright but out of print and unavailable in any format or medium. Let’s put aside the possibility that Google might have other unspoken, more sinister goals in mind and consider the foregoing as a real possibility. The opinion author laments that, in order for Google to succeed in this arguably laudable pursuit, it must come to terms with existing copyright laws that have put Google in the position of having to chase down interests that really may not even be interested.

The problem is the concept of “orphan works” – books for which there is outstanding copyright protection but for which there is no longer any publishing interest. Out of print, out of sight and out of mind in the non-digital context. Google’s efforts would bring these orphan works out of the murky slime and back into the light of a new day in the electronic world. All other concerns being equal, I think most would agree that having easy access to information where there previously had been little or no access is a positive step.

The countervailing interest is the preservation of the existing system of copyright protection, which locks down rights to works well past the point where such rights have any meaningful value. Professor Lessig questions why there should even be a concept of an orphan work: copyright protection according to Lessig is “intended to make markets function more efficiently” while the current system’s embrace of “orphan works” that are locked down under copyright protection long past the point where ownership can be identified brings the markets to a screeching halt.

 One would think that the original authors might be interested in keeping their works in front of the public eye. One would also think that librarians and reference professionals might applaud a system that would offer easier access to these hard to find pieces. Not so – authors are complaining about their share from the Google book settlement and librarians fear a Google dictatorship over the rights to out-of-print books. Why the interest in maintaining the leaky plumbing?

Professor Lessig notes that our modern system of content creation screams for an update, one that will offer clearer rules of ownership. As an on-line content creator, I tend to agree – I would rather have my material shared and discussed than locked down and protected. I get a thrill from finding arcane information previously unavailable or difficult to locate that far exceeds my pecuniary interest in a blog post. But then again, I am not a famous writer. Not yet anyway.