Rebel Efforts to Liberate the Law

Tim Stanley, Carl Malamud, and the the team at are tenacious, creative and on a mission. Individually, each is finding creative ways to make America’s vast quantity of legal documents available over the Internet at no charge to the public. Together, they are opening up America’s legal system to the public through the Internet.

Malamud states his case in a recent Wired Online Rights article. “Court filings are a part of the fabric of a democracy, and should be freely available to average citizens. We are going after all primary legal materials in the US,” Malamud says. “That’s part of America’s OS, and we think it should be open source.”

This all sounds fairly intellectual, but in fact, freeing documents has required the kind of creativity and even sneakiness more often associated with Robin Hood than with document-management advocates.

  • James Fallows of the Atlantic recounts Malamud’s success in “tricking” the SEC into providng filing information online for free, and his efforts to get C-SPAN to open up its archives of government meetings to the web.
  • The Santa Rose Press Democrat covers Malamud’s effort to persuade California to allow its codes and regulations to be legally downloaded. “The state claims copyright to those laws. It dictates how you can access and distribute them — and therefore how much you’ll have to pay for print or digital copies.” And Tim Stanley blogs about Malamud’s work to keep Oregon’s laws free of copyright.
  • Wired recounts Malamud’s “thumb drive corps” who liberated public documents from libraries around the country, participating in a trial program to give the public unlimited free access to these documents. Volunteers took up PACER’s “all you can eat” offer by downloading large numbers of cases to thumb drives before donating them to his efforts.
  • The federal court’s search engine, PACER, netted $50 million in 2006 from users accessing federal court records. Malamud has asked lawyers to donate their PACER documents to his open source initiative, His efforts have published all decisions for federal appeals courts over the last 50 years, and 20% of all documents on PACER.

Carl Malamud’s wonderful successes may be more visible than others, because his approach involves civic engagement. His non-profit approach is complimented by businessman and publisher Tim Stanley, and the more academic approach taken by the team at

Tim Stanley is a master of technology, publishing and marketing. He built and sold Findlaw to West Publishing, which is now a unit of Thomson Reuters. Today, his firm Justia both helps law firms use the web for marketing and provides Internet users with free case law, codes, regulations, legal articles and legal blog databases, as well as community resources. They recently added a free database of federal civil district court opinions, and they’ve teamed with Cornell University to add Web 2.0 tools such as wiki pages for decisions.

Finally, AltLaw describes itself as a small effort to make legal opinions easier to find. They’re modest.

AltLaw is a group effort of Stuart Sierra and Paul Ohm, with help from Luis Villa and Dana Powers, and  Tim Wu, the Director of Columbia’s Program on Law and Technology.  The database provides full-text search of Supreme Court and Federal Appellate opinions from the last decade or so. It also allows for easy downloading of decisions in PDF format or plain text. It doesn’t provide the federal opinions found on PACER; that’s where it would connect nicely with Malamud’s current efforts.

Is this bad news for government agencies and private companies who sell access to government records?  Not necessarily. The best information services have already moved past just providing access to data by providing better interfaces to wider ranges of data from across the globe. They also add value by improving the data through special tagging, quality control, and services that intelligently sift through new records to alert customers to just what they need to know.

This is, however, unquestionably good news for consumers of information and the public. And it underscores that we’re living in a time when the personal insight and dedication of even a few people can have far-reaching effects.

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