October 20, 2009
It's Time for Law.Gov
Carl Malamud and Public.Resource.Org have announced that they "are going to be working with a distinguished group of colleagues from across the country to create a solid business plan, technical specs, and enabling legislation for the federal government to create Law.Gov. We envision Law.Gov as a distributed, open source, authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States." From the effort's Law.gov website: "Law.Gov would be similar to Data.Gov, providing bulk data and feeds to commercial, non-commercial, and governmental organizations wishing to build web sites, operate legal information services, or otherwise use the raw materials of our democracy. ... Creating the system from open source software building blocks will allow states and municipalities to make their materials available as well."
The group's goal is to deliver by mid-2010 a detailed report to policy makers in Washington, D.C., including at a minimum:
- Detailed technical specifications for markup, authentication, bulk access, and other aspects of a distributed registry.
- A bill of lading defining which materials should be made available on the system.
- A detailed business plan and budget for the organization in the government running the new system.
- Sample enabling legislation.
- An economic impact statement detailing the effect on federal spending and economic activity.
- Procedures for auditing materials on the system to ensure authenticity.
Confirmed co-conveners who will assist in the development of the group's report by hosting workshops, symposiums, and other activities during Q1/2010 include:
- Professor Pamela Samuelson, Berkeley Law, University of California
- John Podesta, Center for American Progress
- Professor Tim Wu, Columbia Law School
- The Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School
- Professors James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, Duke Law
- Professors Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard Law School
- Professor Jessica Litman, University of Michigan Law School
- The Oyez Project, Northwestern University
- Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media
- Professor Edward W. Felten, Princeton University
- Robert Crown Law Library, Stanford Law School
- Professor Terry Martin, University of Texas Law School
- Professor Jack M. Balkin, Yale Law School
At Law.Gov: America's Operating System, Open Source on O'Reilly Radar, Carl Malamud describes the project in the following words:
Law.Gov is a big challenge for the legal world, and some of the best thinkers in that world have joined us as co-conveners. But, this is also a challenge for the open source world. We'd like to submit such a convincing set of technical specs that there is no doubt in anybody's mind that it is possible to do this. There are some technical challenges and missing pieces as well, such as the pressing need for an open source redaction toolkit to sit on top of OCR packages such as Tesseract. There are challenges for librarians as well, such as compiling a full listing of all materials that should be in the repository.
Law.Gov is an outgrowth of 3 years of work we've done at Public.Resource.Org along with our numerous colleagues in the open law movement across the country. There have been a series of piecemeal successes which have demonstrated that there is a demand and a need for more legal information to be more broadly available. I'm hopeful now that a truly national movement may have coalesced and that there is at least a chance we can bring this across the finish line and create a new function inside of government, the publication of America's operating system on an open source platform.
Time to Save the Legal Information System: Up for the Challenge? Law.Gov is the best chance legal information professionals have to prove that primary legal information "wants to be free" from fee-based vendors in a comprehensive and systematic manner. As Malamud stated above, piecemeal successes in free legal search services have proven the concept. Individually, the reliability of these free case law and statutory services and the authenticity of the resources accessed using them are serious concerns that can only be resolved once and for all by becoming functions of federal and state governments in a comprehensive program.
An open source, authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials would open the door to online search competition based primarily on research tools and online interfaces. Fee-based vendors will have to become more responsive to changing technologies, user needs and market forces, factors the big two have largely ignored or been able to dominate for far too long.
Some of the "best and brightest" in law librarianship, the legal academy and the IT industry are on board. One would hope that the ABA and AALL will strongly support this effort at the institutional level. Quoting from the Law.gov site:
As the American Association of Law Librarians said in their ground-breaking report and AALL National Summit on Authentic Legal Information in the Digital Age [in 2007], “it is time to save the legal information system.”
Imagine Choosing to Use Fee-Based Services Because of Their Secondary Materials, Tools and Interfaces. It's time for Law.gov at all levels of government, federal, state and local, for primary legal materials. An authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials will level the playing field, reduce data collection costs and, if Law.gov's data specs include paragraph-level numbering, it will eliminate the long antiquated dependence on the physical representation of court opinions and other non-codified primary legal materials for citation purposes.
Imagine a world where choosing to use LexisNexis and Westlaw is based primarily on their online secondary legal resources, interfaces and research tools after the duopolistic market structure in the legal publishing industry has been smashed because authenticated primarily legal information is available from multiple sources. That's not hard to do; just look at the value-added services offered by BNA and Wolters Kluwer.
The folks who press the buttons in the land of 10,000 invoices are drinking the "that will never happen" Kool-aid if they believe it won't while the folks in the Buckeye state are thanking their lucky stars for having Shepard's and Matthew Bender titles to offer online. Which company has the better interface re-designers remains to be seen. Which company does not fall into the too Google-ish trap in SE development like Wolter Kluwer's IntelliConnect has also remains to be seen.
If successful, Law.gov will represent a historic transformation in the provision of legal information. It's not the last chance to do so, but it is the best opportunity to date. [JH]