Sunday, November 08, 2009

Interview with Carl Malamud; Thoughts on "Free Law," Kerfuffles and Law.Gov

On Friday afternoon, 6 November 2009, we interviewed Carl Malamud, founder of A transcript of the chat room can be found here. You can download the interview from The Law Librarian's BlogTalkRadio web page or find it on iTunes.

Law.Gov was the focus of the interview, and it seems that much of the hoopla (and kerfuffle) about Law.Gov and the "free law" movement is all misguided worry on the part of commercial publishers. The worry on the part of researchers is justified, but, after listening to Malamud's explanation of the Law.Gov movement, not cause for pessimism.

Lexis and Westlaw are the two largest commercial sources of very high priced primary legal material (VHPPLM), as opposed to "free (primary) law," (FPL). The worry on the part of VHPPLM providers is that the free law, or the Open Access movement, will result in loss of market share and lost revenue. The logic of this is really extraordinary. VHPPLM providers get the primary material for free, refine and repackage it with very good (no, excellent) indexing and finding, and then sell it to professionals at a premium.

This is perfectly fair (if over-priced), because the market will get what it can for its services.

The problem with the equation is that the people who deserve the FPL, the people who actually, by right of citizenship, own it, end up in a position that makes it difficult for them to even get access to it. Ordinary citizens must have complete and reliable access to FPL. It is argued by many that unfettered access to it is even critical to our democracy. As our government depository program dries up and disseminates more and more government information via the internet or formats that require mediating technology or services, access to information becomes less available to the general population.

In fact, over the last century governments have, in some cases, abdicated their responsibility to freely disseminate their laws and legal materials to commercial publishers, making VHPPLM the sole source of access to the law. For example, until the late 1970's, when Lexis came on the scene, the opinions federal district and circuit courts were only published by West Publishing. Many states have ceased publication of their own case law in favor of West's Regional Reporters, and, in some cases ceased publication of their statutes in favor of commercial publication of their codes. This left access to the law beyond the reach of most citizens and, even, many public libraries.

If an informed citizenry is critical to a functioning government, what can be done to make sure that the laws are accessible to everyone who wants to read them? Who looks out for the public, who simply wants, indeed by rights needs free access to government information? Well, Open Access advocates do, as do people and movements that work to build free databases that strive to provide reliable access to primary materials. LII is an example of a service that's been around for a long time and that provides as much access to free information as possible. The problem for aggregators like LII is that the information that they provide is only as good as the sources available to them. And governments are just not very good sources of their own information.

Law.Gov is a movement that is determined to work to raise the quality of government information. They are determined to establish standards for state and local courts, legislatures and agencies to follow in the production and distribution of their own legal materials.

If Law.Gov succeeds in its mission, it will mean that governments and courts will produce better information, in formats that are reliable, accurate and distributed freely to all who need it. And all who need it include both private citizens and providers of VHPPLM. As such, this is good for news for providers of VHPPLM, as well as ordinary consumers of primary legal materials.

As Malamud said in response to a question from the chat room that asked whether he sees Law.Gov as a competitor to Lexis and Westlaw, (paraphrasing) "No, absolutely not! We are simply looking to formulate a system that will assist governments and courts to provide free, reliable access to government information." Lexis and Westlaw, will be the beneficiaries of the movement, as will the public. (Gee, they are members of the public, aren't they?) Nothing in the movement should discourage them from developing their critically important secondary materials.

Law.Gov is entering a phase of self-study and over the next year will be examining how governments and courts can work to systematically and freely publish and distribute government and legal materials. Visit to learn more about Law.Gov. At the website you can find out about how to donate to the project and support its work, and about a nationwide series of workshops that will be held next year to discuss how its work will be accomplished.

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