Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A New Form of Cheeseburger: Modern Technology & the Development of the Next Generation of Secondary Materials

[With due thanks to Jason Wilson's brilliant post, "Secondary Materials are Like Cheeseburgers," I propose below, a concept of how law librarians, law review editors, scholars and bloggers can cooperate and build a better (well, new!) cheeseburger. These are random thoughts. I welcome feedback. RL]

The recipe:
Take Web 2.0 + Digital Commons + Durham Statement; Combine them, process until well-done and place between slices of WWW, Web 2.0 and app-technology.

The Next Generation of Secondary Materials
It is generally understood that secondary materials serve two very important purposes (beyond earning money for publishers and money and prestige for authors): First, a secondary resource, such as a treatise, practice material, looseleaf or scholarly article, provides users with clear statements of the meaning and application of the legal principles or concepts that are reflected in court opinions, statutory and administrative materials. They are essentially syntheses of rules and ideas expressed in these disparate resources, which are created and published by necessarily disparate entities for necessarily disparate audiences with necessarily disparate interests.
Second, they provide important indexing of these disparate resources through citation and analysis of the various materials. For example, if you are interested in finding the most significant cases that explain the difference between civil and criminal contempt, one need only read the relevant chapter of Wright and Miller’s Federal Practice and Procedure, because it is there that recognized experts in the field not only express their opinions as to those differences, but they also provide citations to the authorities that support their conclusions and analysis. Indeed, there may well be more cases available on the topic, but we trust that the ones cited by the authors of this treatise are the most important and most significant.

As publishers grapple with a variety pressures from shareholders and corporate boards as well as with changes in the technology and practical aspects of publishing, they have tended to respond with practices and policies that have actually served to run contrary to their underlying function which is to offer research tools to lawyers, students, practitioners and lay people who come to them for answers to pressing legal questions. Instead of, as once was the case, of serving the legal community by offering helpful tools and distributing them as widely as possible, they are narrowing their distribution to customers who can and must pay.

It is my opinion that several recent advances in “technology” generally can provide us with a new mode of secondary materials that may be as useful as traditional secondary materials, but that may be available for free for all.

The New Mode of Secondary Legal Materials
OK, here's the idea. What we're seeking is modern indexing to help the researcher focus on the most important cases - and, if possible clear commentary about what the cases mean.
Law review articles and blogs can give us a glimpse of which cases are important by examining which cases are written about and mentioned in articles and blogs. It is possible that wire services, too, can help identify which cases are important by analyzing the frequency with which cases are reported and commented upon. (There are significant problems with using data on cases reported in commercial media sources, but the problems can be accommodated for in various ways.)
The proliferation of digital law reviews in digital commons and services like SSRN, as well as articles and commentary on blogs can provide the substance for building a free database that consists of analysis of primary materials and commentary on policies and procedures.

Given the disparate forms of materials that are readily available on the web already, it is my opinion that new technology can be developed that can efficiently mine them to give researchers valuable information as they conduct research on any topic. Essentially, this new form of research tool would aggregate material from many sources, index them and offer searching and sorting in forms and of the most benefit to researchers.

In order for such as project to be successful, several foundational things should happen:

1. Law reviews should adopt the practice of asking authors to not only supply abstracts of articles, but should tag them with an approved list of subjects headings. They should also agree to tag digital articles with metadata that accurately reflects author and copyright information.

2. An approved list of metadata tags could also be circulated among bloggers and periodicals that produce digital editions.

3. Articles should be mined for citation data, including references to cases, courts, judges, scholars, etc.

4. Search results should be able to be ranked based on a variety of factors, including reputation and productivity of the authors and citation frequency.

5. Full text of cases should be indexed by computer and archived in a secure location. Search results should be available either as full text or as citation lists.

Fantasy or Possibility?
Is it possible to build a research tool that aggregates and searches information from such disparate sources? What’s more, what will such a service look like, and will it actually be valuable to researchers?
It is clear that collectively, blogs, law reviews, digital commons and various websites that report and comment upon legal matters cover a substantial portion of the most important cases of the day. A systematic method of crawling and indexing this content should provide researchers with a viable starting point for researching any current legal topic.
With Google Scholar and efforts on the part of law reviews and digital commons to build retrospective collections of secondary materials, the potential exists to build a rich, publicly accessible free resource.
Looking forward, legal scholars and other experts may endeavor to regularly comment upon breaking cases and other developments, thus providing a continuing source of present commentary about modern legal matters.
Modern developments in AJAX and HTML5, as well as new functionality of apps on iOS and Android platforms and their respective hardware platforms have the potential for the development of entirely new research tools. Unlike the present generation of online databases that are essentially flat text files built from print treatises, these new tools can give people access to a new concept of secondary materials in ways that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.
We’ve often heard of the difficulty of building a better mouse trap. Is it possible to build a better cheeseburger?


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Reflections on the End of the World Wide Web and the Future of the Internet as an Information/Service Resource

[This post is in an essay written in preparation for the December 10, 2010, Episode 16 of "Law Librarian Conversations," a podcast about all things law library.... This week's podcast with guests Tom Boone, Reference Librarian, Loyola Law School; Jason Wilson, Vice President Jones McClure Publishing; Ed Walters, CEO, Fastcase.

If you are reading this before Friday, 12/10, you can join us by clicking on this link:

Title: LawLibCon 16 - Future of Interface Design (12/10/2010)
Date: Friday, December 10, 2010
Time: 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM CST
After registering you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the Webinar. Follow the conversation in the chat room during the live broadcast athttp://lawlibcon.classcaster.com/chat.

Subscribe to LawLibCon on iTunes here: http://u.cali.org/2jwf . Enough shameless self-promotion.... RL]


I've been fascinated recently by a new trend in consumer use of the internet.

The internet itself has remained pretty stable as a continuing backbone for the electronic exchange of information. It has been surprisingly robust and scalable. Embarrassingly, I was one of those people who, in the early 1990's was predicting that the internet would soon break from the volume of usage as it spread from academic to commercial users. At the time, it seemed that as usage - especially, graphical intense usage - would fill the capacity of routers and cables of our national infrastructure. Surprise, surprise. Hardware manufacturers and ISPs have somehow figured out to meet the demand. (And have they ever….)

But while the internet backbone has scaled up and provided one and all with (potential) capacity for the mammoth amounts of bandwidth. A well wired home could (does?) have a wireless access point that supports at least ten simultaneous devices on the same router at speed and capacity to allow all ten users to stream music while surfing the web with several tabs open.

So the internet itself supports surprisingly intense usage. But the people who make money on the sale of this usage are the ISPs. What about the information providers who provide the information or services that consumers use? In order for content and service providers to make money for their information or services, they need two things: Unique, high quality information or services, and, eyeballs. Service or information providers either make money on the information that they sell to users, or they give their information or services away for free and sell advertising to others. This much is obvious. It's also the great challenge of being in business on the internet.

Either way, the vendor has a vested interest in holding the users' attention as long as possible. One way that they are doing that is by creating new "platforms" for access to, or usage of information or services available on the internet. If you think about it, this basic concept underlies nearly all recent developments in cyber-business. The creation of the iOS and its use of apps to access the internet was one of the very first examples of a way to lure users away from the wide-open world wide web and into a world where use of the internet was now carried out completely from within an application. This provided us with excellent, robust access to and usage of the information or services, while at the same time, keeping us in that very location for focused, discreet periods of time.

But as Mobile Safari began to become a major source of internet activity, other service and information providers began to see the potential for customized, focused internet experience. Google keeps developing more and more products and services and makes them available for free to all-comers - and yet makes billions. And they make that money without ever sending you a bill! The strategy is simple, get users to click into the world of Google for search, mail, documents, RSS feeds, phone, etc.; And keep them there! Google is striving to extend their reach even further by developing its mobile platform, Android and its forthcoming operating system, ChromeOS. Once in the Google world, a user will be able to stay in that world. FaceBook, too, making plays to become the one-stop source of all your internet life and activity.

Developments such as these may ultimately serve to make the intent a series of walled gardens where users can't easily move from one application or platform at will, at least not easily. Examples of how fine these walled gardens have become can be seen in two recent announcements of publishing ventures which have begun entirely as applications on the iPad. For example, Rupert Murdoch's announcement of the creation of an iPad based newspaper called "The Daily," and Richard Branson's new magazine called, "Project." The Daily isn't yet released (as of this writing) but Project is. And it is stunning in nearly every respect. It's beautiful, packed with features and utility. But it is limited in one important respect.

Even if I wanted to share with you the wonderful cover story in Project, I couldn't. First off, there is no URL. Second, even if I could, somehow send you a link to the article, because Project was developed on an app built especially for the iPad, you need one in order to view it. And there's no end in sight. Such applications are bound to appear in all major platforms.

The irony is that well-executed applications provide outstanding experience for the user and many people prefer the experience of browsing Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds and databases through available apps over accessing the same information with a browser.

What's a developer to do? The hope, from a user's point of view is that developers will focus their efforts on building good services and databases and make them available on every available platform. It is also important for a new system of link locators be developed so that links from within a ChromeOS application will be able to find the same article or information in an iOS application or from within a browser.

Such challenges are so subtle and nuanced as to be nearly invisible today. Tomorrow they may well be extreme obstacles for cross-platform use and may make today's successful platform the preferred one for distribution of tomorrow's information and services….

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Two Observations About the State of Modern Law Book Publishing

First, things cost too much and the prices keep increasing at rates that are out-stripping inflation and funding for libraries. It's almost as though publishers don't want law libraries to buy law books any more. Second, while the quality of online services, and, indeed, even print resources get better and better, there is still an indication that publishers aren't developing their materials for what people need, but, rather, what they can profit from.

Think that the reason that we're in these predicaments is at least partly because most of our publishers are so far removed from their customers that they simply don't understand who their customers are, or how or why they are using them.

For the most part, the executives of the big three publishers of materials about American law are not lawyers, nor publishers. Even if they have law degrees, they usually also have MBA's and come from business backgrounds. They are corporate types who see their companies as manufacturing widgets! They don't appreciate the grave responsibility that they have as publishers. (Seriously.)

Think about it. Without publishers, we'd have no idea what the law is. After all, the law is ideas, and it doesn't become static or fixed in any way, shape or form until it's captured in some form or other. The government and the courts have traditionally done a half-a**ed job of publishing legal materials, but that's about it. The only two government publications that are effectively published are the Federal Register and the CFR. Everything else they publish is poorly done: slow, bizarre formats and classification systems, etc. Without commercial publishers, we wouldn't have a workable USC, US Supreme Court Reports, federal court reporters, etc. What's more, even if we did have all that it wouldn't be worth much without looseleafs, treatises and law reviews to tell us what it all means. (See Jason Wilson's excellent post on why Secondary Sources are Like Cheeseburgers. The work of publishers isn't just like manufacturing hub caps or widgets, it's a vitally important role in our whole legal system. It's the lynchpin of our understanding the law.

But publishers and executives who come to the law publishing industry thinking that they are publishing widgets, will view their work differently than those who realize that they are not publishing widgets. This is the first problem: the new publishers are not serving us, they're serving themselves. They think they're making widgets.

Second, in the aftermath of the enormous mergers of the Ninties, the companies have merely grown more dense at the top. People who make decisions about what should be published and what shouldn't, or how they should serve their customers or how they shouldn't are now made by people who are so far removed from their customers, that they can't really hear what's being said. Sales people don't know who to communicate with inside companies in order to pass along good ideas. (Librarians are full of good ideas, by the way. No fooling.) I had an experience recently in which a single title published by a single publisher was available in both print and electronic formats. Managers of the print format didn't even know there was an electronic format available! The left hand didn't merely no know what the right hand was doing; the left hand didn't even know the right hand existed!

There are a couple publishers still around who are independent and produce good materials, and they succeed, in part I think because they are still small enough where actual customers can talk to the publishers and the product development people. But with the likes of the big three (or four, depending on how you count), you can't get any face time with a person who matters unless you can deliver.... profits.

Now, lest this sound too pessimistic and negative, please understand that I'm simply trying to be objective with this post. All this is understandable and remediable. Publishers must realize that their roles are critical components of our legal system and take a broader, bigger view of what they do. And, we customers must be more understanding about who were are dealing with; and we must continually strive to inform them. Especially the those newest to the field. If they don't get it, we must work to explain to them why we care so much, and why they should care about why we care.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Time for Change at AALL?

In reading all the late controversy about AALL's programming issues, it seems to me that the obvious cause of the complaints can be traced to the peculiar nature of the membership structure of the association itself.

Several years ago, I proposed in Spectrum a fundamental change in the way AALL was structured. It required all members to select a section when they joined the association or as part of their membership renewal. There would be four sections: academic, private firms, courts and independent. Publishers and consortia could be granted their own sections. Officers and programming for each section would be solely the responsibility of the membership of that section. This would mean that ALL-SIS, for example, would represent issues of interest to all academics, not simply the ones that decided to join Academic Law Libraries as a "special interest." It seems weird that SIS's like ALL, PLL and SCCL would be "special interests" on the same level as TS, OBS or LISP, etc.

The present section structure defines members by their desires and does little to help develop programming based on professional needs of various types of law library practice. For example, the TS or RIPS sections have members that are not also members of either ALL or PLL! As a consequence, neither section accurately represents either Academic or Private law librarians. The fact is, both PLL and ALL should have TS or public services sections.

This new structure would allow each section to have blocks of programming during annual meetings. AALL would have responsibility for its own blocks of programming that spans section interests. I urge you and your readers to consider this proposal. Last time the idea was floated, the Board was afraid of how to dismantle the existing power structure of SIS's. I think that the fears were misguided.

In the end, the Association would be stronger and do a better job of representing it's membership. For what it's worth.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hitting the Wall, Technologically Speaking

Note, this is a draft of a column to be published in Legal Information Alert. RL]

Well, ok. It happened. I hit the technology wall.

It didn’t hurt or anything, but it was kind of stunning, and it made me laugh. In the back of my mind, however, there’s now an ache, a melancholy low-keyed, distant panic is now resting there. Waiting. You’re gonna hit it, too. So be prepared.

Here’s the thing. Yesterday I got official word that I had just won a professional award for “distinguished” service to a special interest section (SIS) of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). It caught me completely off-guard because, while I’ve been a member for years, the last time I held an office in it was 1989. (It looks like it’s true, if you stick around long enough, eventually people notice....) The special interest section is called, Computer Services SIS. When I was president of the section, it was called the Automation and Scientific Development SIS, and the section’s newsletter, which I also edited, was called The Automatome. The title of the section and the newsletter each provide an interesting perspective of the state of technology back in the day. In fact, at my last meeting as chair of the section, I proposed that the section should no longer exist. My rationale was that since technology was becoming so prevalent in our professional lives, it was analogous to having a special interest section on paper!

The experience got me thinking nostalgically about the ‘old days,’ and I thought that it would be fun to bring copies of the old newsletter to the meeting and share some of the quaint observations it contained. For example, I remember writing a review of a new 20 megabyte hard drive and describing how it would change the world. I know there are other gems contained in those old issues. I’ve never been shy about commenting on technological developments and predicting the future, so I thought that it would be fun to resurrect The Automatome and have a laugh.

And then I hit the wall. I have a few paper copies of The Automatome in a trunk in my basement, but I don’t know if I have a complete set, and I don’t know what is their condition. Not to worry, I have them in electronic format, of course. In 3.5 inch floppy disks! Formatted in who knows what number Mac OS?! It could be system 4 for all I know. And who knows what version of Word for Mac I was using? (These are rhetorical questions, obviously, because, at this point, only I know the answers to these questions. But, simply looking at the discs won’t necessarily tell me how they’re formatted or what software I used. Perhaps I was still using MacWrite....) But in order to actually use the files to do anything, I’d need to boot up my old Mac, which hasn’t been turned on in nearly twenty years and see what happens.

But let’s suppose that I was able to fire up the old Mac Plus, load the software and open the documents; all of which is possible, I should add. Then what am I supposed to do with it? As far as I can remember, in those days, I was using Compuserve for email and haven’t kept up my account; so emailing a copy of the documents to myself wouldn’t work. The computer didn’t (doesn’t) have any USB ports or any way that I could use to transfer the documents from the computer to another kind of present day storage media.

I could try to print the documents. I still have the original Image Writer that I used for years. It was a cool, state of the art dot-matrix, Postscript printer. I’m sure that I don’t have any print cartridges, and I’m not sure where I could get one. I could try to use a new printer, but I am pretty sure HP doesn’t make a printer driver that for an old Mac OS computer.

See what I mean? I hit the wall. The best I can hope for at this point is to fire up the old Mac Plus and take photos of the screen! I suppose I could lug the computer around and fire it up when I wanted to show people the issues of the old newsletter. As a practical matter, many people don’t realize that one of the original accessories for the Mac was a canvas case that actually had a should strap and a pouch for an external disk drive; in short, the original Mac Plus, all 20/25 pounds of it was conceived of as a portable computer. Hauling the Mac around to show my friends and colleagues vintage computer newsletters on a vintage computer, has a certain elegance to it, doesn’t it?

In short, it’s a wall that we’ll all hit more than once, going forward. In fact, I’m sure that it’s happening with many documents, some of them even more important that old copies of Automatome. Is this a sort of personal morality play for law librarians, to be on guard against saving documents in formats that potentially may become obsolete?

Perhaps. In any case, be forewarned that taking any present format for granted may lead you into a narrow alley with no exits....

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Open Access Plus

The Fourth Rail of the Digital Revolution in Legal Materials

Much good work is being done to insure that as the internet develops and digital information becomes the norm, it remains freely accessible to all citizens. After all, how can citizens participate in their government if they can't have access to their own laws? Efforts by AALL, PublicResource.org and NCCUSL and others are focused primarily on making sure that all government and primary legal materials are free, reliable and that they are authentic. Again, how can citizens participate in their government if cost limits their access and they can't be assured that what they are accessing is the real thing? Law.gov, NCCUSL and AALL's Washington Affairs Office are working hard on all fronts, known collectively as "access, authentication and preservation."

I want to discuss the all but overlooked aspect of the digital revolution in legal materials: meaningful access to the the law. If we think of access, authentication and preservation as three legs upon which the ideals of "open access" stand, meaningful access as described below would constitute the fourth leg of the equation, without which all the access in the world may not be enough to truly address the needs of American citizens.

We librarians know good and well that the key to efficient, effective legal research is not finding cases and statutes. Rather, a skilled researcher knows which tools lead you to the right statutes and cases, and, preferably, especially if you're new to the subject, tools that also explain what is the 'law' of that subject. In this context, the 'law' is not merely a rule, but, a series of calculations and interpretations about what all the cases and statutes (and politicians and society in general?) say, and standards of practice or behavior that result, about the subject.

The debate, therefore, about free, unfettered access to primary legal materials is, therefore, something of a red herring. Access to the primary law is really secondary if the goal is to give citizens free, unfettered access to the 'law.' In this context, practical knowledge of the law can be described as the ability to predict outcomes of law suits, relational expectations or legal proceedings. This knowledge causes people to live and pursue livelihoods in accordance with legal standards.

As the body of primary legal materials grows and access to it spreads, what will be the result? Will citizens actually be better able to understand the law without access to the scholarship, analysis and the sophisticated objective finding tools of legal research?

In addition to advocating the free, unfettered access to primary laws, perhaps we should also focus our efforts toward using new technology to develop new finding tools and access to secondary materials.

I propose that the internet provides us with the means to create aggregated, federated meta-search engines that could mine legal scholarship and commentary found in emerging web-based resources such as digital commons, blogs, news and RSS feeds, Twitter feeds, podcasts, etc. We librarians are in a unique position to understand the "informatiosphere"; how it's structured, how to evaluate authenticity, authority and the 'new' provenance. There are many ways that search engines and search algorithms may be designed to provide access to new, free materials that make access to the law more useful, and, contrary to the prevailing commercial model, encourages the development of more free materials.

And herein lies the rub. in the coming 'digital age', one of its byproducts is the ability of commercial publishers to closely regulate access to various information sources. Commercial legal publishers' products rarely have value exclusively in the publication of primary legal materials. The value that commercial legal publishers offer lawyers and lay people interested in learning about he law lies in their secondary materials and finding tools. As open free access to primary materials becomes the norm, legal publishers will likely tighten the circle around their proprietary commercial products. As their income declines from the sale of primary materials, which most also publish in addition to secondary resources, these corporations will make up the difference by increasing the prices of finding tools, treatises, form books, looseleaf reporters, etc. As the print versions of these secondary resrouces disappear from library shelves, access to them by lay people will be all but blocked because most cannot afford access to online products produced by the major legal publishers.

When efforts to make access to primary legal materials free succeeds, it is possible that only legal professionals will have access to commercially produced finding tools and secondary materials. As described earlier, these may actually be the most important materials to which people interested in learning the law must have access in order to equip them to make reasoned, legal decisions about their lives and livelihoods.

Should this come to pass, if we fail to provide to ordinary citizens access to some form of secondary materials that help them find and understand the law, our success in providing them with free, unfettered access to primary materials may, in the end be a pyrrhic victory.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Some Issues Answered: West Explains and Raises questions....

3 Geeks and a Law Blog: WestlawNext - Some Issues Answered published an email that Anne Ellis, Senior Director, Librarian Relations, at West, distributed to many AALL listservs this week.

Just beneath the surface of all the hub-bub surrounding the roll-out of WestlawNext (WLN), is an unanswered question regarding the structure and nature of the new search engine. West doesn't seem to be very forthcoming about what it is other than to say that it is more than just a new interface on the same old product. It is, apparently more that simply new window dressing on WIN. It is also more than simply taking searches, analyzing them and then searching through West's vast universe of secondary materials. There is an aspect of the searching process (dare we call it "algorithm"?), apparently, where the users themselves actually contribute to the ranking/value of specific documents in Westlaw's database, be they primary or secondary law.

Indeed. This is essentially how Google has built it's search engine hegemony. Essentially, users "vote" for results with their clicks. (Of course Google makes money by selling votes to businesses that want to be top of any search list. The ramifications for law makes one think of a Grisham novel....) Is this really what WLN is all about? Is crowd-sourcing the law really good for the law? For researchers?

I wonder.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The 21st Century Law Library Conundrum: Free Law and Paying to Understand It

For years people have been predicting the death of books and the general demise libraries. The people who have been most passionate about them are those who stand to gain financially by their own predictions. And that’s not to say that we haven’t all benefited from digital developments in the world of legal bibliography. But in this past decade has seen some extraordinary technological developments. It looks like world of law libraries may finally be at the cusp of a fundamental change in how we collect, organize and distribute legal materials.

Primary Legal Materials
For the entire history of our Western legal system, the publication of primary legal materials (cases, statutes and regulations) was intimately tied up with tools that help lawyers understand the law. The nineteenth century saw the rise of the industrialization of case reporting when John B West created the National Reporter System, a reporting service that systematically and promptly reported every published case that came from the United States judicial system. The process for collecting and publishing them was strictly objective and so efficient that the volume of reported cases made research virtually impossible without an elaborate indexing system, or some sort of key to finding needed cases. West’s Key Number System, that purported to index every legal issue decided by the courts and was accessible through the encyclopedic digest system served two purposes: reporting cases quickly and authoritatively, as well as providing subject access to the courts’ rulings specific issues.

Over time, West Publishing was so successful at its business that it became the reporter of record for many jurisdictions. Even when a state published its own cases, the West reporter versions were preferred because of their widespread distribution, reliability and speed with which they were published, none of which the official reporters could compete.

West also eventually tackled publication of state and federal codes with the same zeal. Although they were considered “unofficial” versions, their annotated codes became well regarded and authoritative, and, in some cases were adopted as official versions.

Since for most practicing lawyers, West was the best possible source for case law, the company assumed a business model that relied heavily on sales of primary legal materials. This left us in the peculiar situation in which most primary legal materials, that are, in fact, free to everyone, were only available from a single (very expensive) commercial source. West Publishing found itself in the awkward position of being a virtual monopolist of a great deal of free, public legal materials, through no fault of its own. Since ours is a nation of laws, it is difficult to understand how states and federal courts and legislatures could not have made it a priority to publish its laws and cases, but it is a fact that the federal government’s official US Code is so slow to be published as to be virtually unusable; the same with the publication of the official reports of the United States Supreme Court. It is equally difficult to understand how or why the federal courts have never even attempted to publish cases from any other federal courts.

Of course, West also publishes a prodigious amount of important secondary legal materials such as encyclopedias, treatises, textbooks, practice materials and form books. It’s unknown what portion of West’s revenue came from secondary materials, but it is likely that it was a significant percentage, perhaps as much as fifty percent. In any case, publication and sales of primary legal materials constituted a significant source of revenue. The company also integrated many features of both enterprises into an environment in which lawyers could easily move between primary and secondary materials. West’s slogan, “Forever associated with the practice of law,” was descriptive; not merely aspirational.

The “Open Access” Movement
Regardless of the nature of their intentions, by the 1980’s there was a significant amount of activism against West’s de facto monopoly on the publication of primary legal materials. Also known as the “free law” movement, activists in the last two decades have been working to make all primary legal materials freely accessible and free to everyone. They reason that since case law, statutes and regulatory materials are the primary sources of the law that governs them, all citizens should have free, easy access to the materials. The fact is, much of the best sources of this material is published by the West Publishing company, which, as described above, was the source of substantial corporate profit. As calls came for governments and courts to freely release their cases and codes, many were unable to do so because they weren’t the publishers of their own materials!

In the early 1990’s the situation heated up intensely, and open access advocates eventually brought the matter to the attention of the Justice Department, alleging that West Publishing was in violation of a number of anti-trust laws and moral principles for refusing to freely turn over their editions of federal case law to the courts or to emerging publishers who wished to scan the contents of the National Reporter System and distribute it on CD-ROMs, microfilm or their own databases.

The issue settled before it was fully heard in the courts, and resulted in West being able to sell their collections of primary materials for licensing fees. Little is known about the specific terms of the settlement, but it is known that publishers pay West to use the volume and page numbers for cases. But the most significant result of the controversy was the sale of West Publishing to Thomson, a Canadian newspaper publisher. The 60 shareholders of West were fed up with the controversy surrounding their publishing of primary legal materials, they simply wanted to get out while the going was good. The company sold for more than 3.5 billion dollars. And the new company, The West Group, a division of Thomson Reuters, still publishes primary legal materials.

But the world is changing and West, as well as the other main publisher of primary legal materials, Lexis, are struggling to keep up. As the government and courts make increased use of the internet and various other online digital technologies to publish and distribute primary legal materials, it is becoming less necessary for researchers to buy them from West or Lexis. As legal researchers, we are not yet in a position a position to abandon altogether the outstanding primary law products from Lexis and West, which are enhanced with elaborate indexing, digesting and case-verification tools, but it is clear that individuals and organizations are working to develop new programming tools to make web-based legal materials affordable and useful. Two examples are Govtrack.us, and Google Scholar’s Legal Opinions and Journals. Govtrack.us is an example of an outstanding free service that gives researchers superior access to pending federal legislation. It has substantially outdone West and Lexis’ offerings for tracking federal law making. Google’s SLOJ, is brand new and, though clearly an inferior means of researching US case law, Google is clearly committed to continuing to improve it, in terms of it’s content and usefulness. With the resources that Google can through into the process, it’s potential is nearly limitless.

This move to free access to primary legal materials appears to be inevitable. The major problems with digital access to primary legal materials are reliability and permanence. At present, there are no standards that can guarantee that any particular document retrieved from the internet at any point in time is the authoritative version of the underlying law or case. Neither is there a standard for for collecting, compiling and preserving electronic versions of this kind of material. These are huge obstacles, but many groups are presently working on developing such standards, including, among many others, the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws and the American Association of Law Libraries, and there is every reason to think that some meaningful standards will be forthcoming. In the end, everyone with an internet connection and a web browser will be able to have instant access to all primary legal materials from every jurisdiction, court and legislative body in the land.

“Not Free” Law
That means that law libraries and law books will simply disappear in a digital mist, right? Not quite. Every lawyer knows that having access to all needed primary materials doesn’t always help you solve a research question. What’s more helpful is a work that interprets the cases and describes the procedures and rules that come from them, or a system that provides you access to only the most important, instructive cases. Books that not only describe, discuss and criticize the laws, but provide practical information about how they are applied, plus forms and examples of practical documents, are the most valuable resources that publishers publish, and that libraries collect.

In the old, analog world, libraries could purchase a copy of a book and maintain, and make it available to all patrons and unlimited amount of time. In this environment, secondary materials, the most valuable materials to legal researchers, were distributed extremely broadly. A public library could purchase the materials it could afford and make them available to anyone. A law firm library could purchase a single copy of a treatise and not only make it available to all attorneys in the firm, but the could loan it to other firms, too.

The great revolution in legal research and publishing came not simply because online gave quick access to materials, it allowed publishers the ability to sell access to the materials based on a new paradigm: the volume of time the materials were used. This changed the landscape in fundamental ways by making publishers see the sale of online access to legal materials as the real way to increase profits. Essentially, the sale of online legal materials represents a second sale where libraries purchase online subscriptions to materials they already owned in print. And the sale of secondary materials is really a lease. Westaw and Lexis, as publishers sell two things: primary and secondary legal materials. Under this new paradigm in the present economic climate with shrinking budgets for legal materials, there is increased incentive for discontinuing paying for access to primary materials.

What all this means for today’s lawyers and libraries is that at some point we will be able to gradually discontinue our reliance on commercial publishers as sources for primary legal materials. Logically, this means that we’ll have to purchase less materials from Lexis and West. Sadly, while it may be the case that we won’t have to subscribe to as many titles as before, we will continue to pay them more, for less content.

This is how it will work. Even if we cancel the entire National Reporter System and all the annotated codes published by West, we will still need the indexes, digests and Key Numbers that they publish. Without West’s indexing system and catalog of secondary materials, legal researchers are lost. (Imagine sitting down at your computer and launching a service that has access to all cases ever published and inputing a query designed to retrieve all relevant cases on the subject of when a minor can commit to a binding contract. Would you really want every single case ever decided on the subject, or just the ones that are most influential?) As West and Lexis see their revenue decline from sales to primary materials, they will (and are) increasing their prices for access to their secondary materials to make up the difference.

The Revolution
Will increased access to free primary materials make libraries disappear, or become cheaper? It is unlikely that as demand for premiere versions of primary law, such as that available from Westlaw and Lexis declines, the cost for the enhanced, secondary materials will increase in order to account for the anticipated loss of revenue. Of course, part of the irony is that West has had decades to develop and enhance their primary offerings with annotations and cross references to encyclopedias, form books and treatises, such that it’s nearly unthinkable that someone can practice law with only access to free law resources.

For the last fifteen years, prices of materials have increased at rates steadily ahead of inflation or reason. The digital revolution, that once upon a time promised free access to legal materials, will deliver on that promise; it’s just that the free materials it will deliver, even if it comprises the sum total of all primary law in the the country at every level and jurisdiction, will amount to only a minor portion of the materials that lawyers need in order to practice law, and the public needs in order to understand it.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Why I'm Signing the Durham Statement

[I wrote this the day after hosting a podcast with Professors Richard Danner and John Palfrey, authors and architects of the Durham Statement. The podcast can be found on iTunes, here. The transcript of the chat room can be found here. RL]

[In a curious irony, when I logged onto the website to "sign" the statement, I got a 404 error.... Uh, I guess the gods do have a sense of humor! RL]

OK, I'm convinced. I'm going to sign the Durham Statement. But with an asterisk. Here's why.

I fully support all the goals and objectives of 'the open access' movement. I believe that it is critical that as more legal materials are born digital, librarians should be working with content creators (governments, authors, academics, publishers, bloggers, etc.) to be sure that digital information is produced and preserved in systematic, efficient and stable formats. There's a need for that format to be simple, objective and thorough so that software and hardware developers can easily develop applications and search engines that make the material not just accessible, but usable, useful. And, perhaps most important, the formats must be open so that they can be used by developers (of search engines, readers, aggregators, or who knows what kind of tool) for any platform, while at the same time remaining strictly controlled and loyal to established standards. Standards must take into account not only the data itself but its metadata and as well as format.

The desire for an end of print materials is not what's driving the growth in the availability of digital legal information. What's driving its growth are technological developments. Better html, java and Ajax web development tools have made web pages more hospitable for users and developers, and, as a result, more useful for finding, accessing and using information and documents retrieved. Better processing power, bandwidth and storage capacities have made the development and distribution of databases practical, both on the server and user sides. Looking back at history, consumers of legal information have never simply stopped using one format to await the arrival of the next. Any new format must prove itself before it will become the new standard. The same will occur as legal materials transition from print to digital formats. (The question of whether this transition will be total or partial, or somewhere in between - my choice - is beyond the scope of this essay.)

There's also a practical reason for my reservation about the "end of print" declaration in the Statement. By declaring 'the end of print' as an end in itself, I am afraid that it gives too much encouragement to publishers and information creators to put the cart before the horse, and cease printing material before reliable online alternative formats are fully developed. This could lead to disaster in two ways. First, they may move too quickly and develop online tools using new, unproven technologies that may end up making access to the material more difficult than before without refinements and upgrades. And then there's the danger that all early adopters risk: adopting formats that don't survive in the marketplace and may be lost forever.

This is why I object to the language in the Durham Statement that calls for "an end of print publication" of law reviews. In my mind the call is unnecessary, even vacuous. If the printing of law reviews is doomed, it will happen only when there are acceptable substitutes. And not a second sooner.

I'm signing the Statement with the above reservations, and whole-heartedly support it's underlying goals and objectives, (I support AALL, NCCUSL, LIPA and Law.gov, too), the call for the development of rigorous standards for materials that are born digital. I also like the idea that legal scholarship be included in the open access movement. There's great potential to create a fascinating, organic living encyclopedia of legal scholarship.