July 12, 2011
Freeing Digitally Conceived Text, Part 2: Moving Beyond Print, Commercial Online Sources and Government-Hosted eSilos
The Illinois Supreme Court announced Tuesday [May 31, 2011] a new way of officially citing its cases and those of the Illinois Appellate Court. This new method will eliminate the need to contractually publish and purchase the official opinions in bound volumes. It will save Illinois taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. ... The new method of citation goes into effect July 1, 2011. The current contract for printing the advance sheets and bound volumes of Illinois court opinions expires July 31, 2011 and will not be renewed. ... Reliance on printed reports for access to the courts’ opinions has diminished with the rise of electronic databases, such as those found on the Court’s own internet website at www.state.il.us/court, Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis.
Quoting from the Illinois Supreme Court's May 31, 2011 press release, Illinois Supreme Court Announces New Public Domain Citation System, Ending Era of Printed Volumes. See also Mark Giangrande's Illinois Reports 1831 - 2011 RIP.
From Conception to Birth of Text. "We hold these truths to be self-evident" that all source documents for primary legal resources are conceived digitally now. The text typically starts off in a word processing file. The text may be poorly formed. It may be produced using a word processing application that is no longer in widespread use. (See, for example, the GPO's illustration of an appendix to the Economic Report of the President quoted in Freeing Digitally Conceived Text, Part 1: The Federal Government as Documentation Authenticator, FDsys as a Trusted Repository, and the GPO as a Bulk Distributor of XML Files). The digitally conceived text then may go through a meat-grinding electronic workflow manufacturing process that oftentimes producing an ill-formed, metadata-not-enhanced PDF file when it does not merely produce text in a print format. The point is simple -- this original digital text does not typically leave the womb in a freely accessible authenticated,metadata-enhanced electronic format. The current life-cycle of legal text is still bound by a late 20th century manufacturing and commercial marketing model that is out of step with well-established 21st Century information and documentation technology.
Take for example the below image of a snip of footnotes from EFF's Know Your Rights! (June 2011) webpage (click to enlarge). The only hyperlinked cites are to US Code sections and federal rules accessible on Cornell's very reliable LII's site (red). None of the cited case law is hyperlinked. Some of the opinions are published in print (blue as in depressed), others are unpublished opinions that are cited to a very expensive online legal search vendor (green as in cash). Now, EFF may have been able to find all the cited court opinions in an open access database such as Google but until open law becomes a reality in a comprehensive, systematic manner with authenticated metadata-rich files, file reliability is questionable and the long-term viability of such projects may produce link-rot.
Isn't it time to free digitally conceived text of primary legal resources from print and commercial online sources by way of at least one publicly funded centralized database with basic research tools serving also as a bulk distributor of XML files. It's time to advance to a new era, to move beyond the separate silos like Thomas, eCFR, court and/or state-specific website access points to create a single open access route based on the collaborative efforts of federal and state governments. All the essential infrastructure from system engineering to documentation tools and practices to uniform format neutral citation standards are readily available. All that's need is standardization and an access point. Could FDsys provide both by becoming something more that a federal portal?
Hell, even standardized electronic data can be made readily available by WEXIS. If commercial publishers of official legal text can be required to price, for example, print official reporters substantially less than their own commerical reporters in some states (but not that's not exactly the case for the government-granted virtual monolopy for federal court opinions), just how hard do you think it would be to put a gun to those vendors heads by requiring them to upload court, agency and legistative materials is a standardized e-format to at least one publicly funded centralized database if they want to continue making money off these public records in their own print and online publications?
The only ingredient missing is the will for a concerned, coordinated, joint (not silo-like) lobbying campaign mounted by the ABA, AALL, public interest and consumer advocacy groups and even some legal publishers that goes well beyond the occasional press release and appearance before legislative committees. The momentum started by LAW.GOV's workshops needs to be ignited by more serious, dare I say, rebellious action. There are many ways of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with commercial vendors as an expression of protest.
Oops, I almost used the "boycott" word. Well, there's certainly a reason to protest, like the one stated by the Illinois Supreme Court to justify ending its era of print in the above quote -- save taxpaper money. WEXIS will survive on the basis of whatever value it adds to primary legal sources and its secondary sources in online and print formats. I would add that electronic back files from WEXIS should also be required, stripped of copyright-protected editoral content so that complete legal record is publicly accessible. This would eliminate the need for double and triple-key entry of work sent off to India and China, reducing the entry barrier cost of private enterprises and introduce some real competition in the marketplace. [JH]
For the first in this (very) occasional series of LLB posts, see The Federal Government as Documentation Authenticator, FDsys as a Trusted Repository, and the GPO as a Bulk Distributor of XML.
Could or should an "an online [universal] citation server" accompany a "free digitally conceived text of primary legal resources from print and commercial online sources"?
Posted by: Michael Ginsborg | Jul 13, 2011 5:04:40 PM
Good for you, Joe! This is such an important issue. I cannot imagine why the courts allow it to continue so that they have to keep paying to buy back their own opinions from West and Lexis, or whomever is printing the reporters in that state, as well as any online searching they are doing! It is just madness! I want the states to require the monopoly-holders to create the free online version of the decisions in addition to any print versions of official reports. They don't have to have headnotes, but there MUST be a useable search engine or index.
Posted by: Betsy McKenzie | Jul 12, 2011 1:41:46 PM