A fantastic development out of the United States last week – Harvard Law School and Ravel Law plan to make access to the school’s entire library of reported U.S. case law available for free on Ravel’s website. In a multi-year effort and at a cost said to be in the millions (exact details not known), some “40,000 books containing approximately forty million pages of court decisions” are being digitized and uploaded to Ravel’s platform, where anybody will be able to search, read and use the material at no cost. This is an incredible advance in open access to law and one that is being rightly praised in the U.S. and around the world.
Ravel Law, as a private entity (in which Harvard holds a 4% equity interest), has an eight-year exclusive license to commercially exploit the files, but the deal provides for early expiration on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis as each “publishes its future court decisions online in an acceptable format.” Harvard reports that Illinois and Arkansas already satisfy that condition. (If you’re curious where the other States currently stand, Berkman Center Research Fellow and Slaw contributor Sarah Glassmeyer has you covered.)
A little more background on the Harvard/Ravel deal as reported on Bob Ambrogi’s Law Sites blog:
- It is literally every published opinion from every U.S. jurisdiction from all time
- Text of cases will include links to images showing the original cases as they appeared in print
- [F]or any state that makes its case law available online in an authoritative, machine-readable format, […] the historical collection for that state will become immediately available in the public domain. They are doing this, Lewis said, as a call to action for the states to put their case law online in an authoritative format.
- […] Ravel Law will develop an API to let other developers work with the information. Ravel will license the data to commercial publishers and others who want to purchase it.
- Researchers who are doing empirical research will be able to apply for access to the bulk data prior to the expiration of the eight years.
U.S. case law is considered public domain, but headnotes and editorial treatments are subject to copyright. Consequently, anyone hoping to scan old casebooks needs to strip out the copyrightable elements before putting the content to use. Several players have taken up the task and today at least five “retail” legal information services offer extensive fee-based case law access (e.g., Westlaw, Lexis, Fastcase, Casemaker, Bloomberg BNA) and I’m aware of at least three that offer fee-based bulk access to “wholesale” feeds of case law with collections going back decades. Throw in groups like Casetext, Justia and the Free Law Project, that offer free retail or wholesale access of more current case law and you have the makings of a very competitive, open and innovative market. Moreover, you have numerous players with an incentive to support third-party development of tools and services that make new and exciting use of that content.
The Harvard/Ravel deal will push things even further by truly liberating access to the content that supports the business models of all players. When bulk access to case law is free for everybody, it gets harder for anyone to make a buck selling simple access. As the commercial value of U.S. case law begins to diminish, the incentives to build something on top of that data increase.
Exciting times ahead, but it has me thinking: whither Canada?
I’ll explore that question with a Part 2 post next week.