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Jun 20, 2010

Law.Gov: The Quest to Put the Law Online

On Friday (June 18) I attended "Law.gov: Putting It All Together," the final of a six-month series of 15 workshops held across the country to solicit input on a proposal by PublicResource.org founder Carl Malamud to create cost-free  "a distributed registry and repository of all primary [federal and state] legal materials in the United States."

The project is called "law.gov," after the proposed web site that would serve as a central access portal for this material.

The specific purpose of the June 18 session was to gather final input as Malamud prepares to create a comprehensive proposal on how to proceed with the project, which will then be circulated to gather support.

Malamud defines "primary legal materials" as "all materials that have the force of law and are part of the law-making process including: briefs and opinions from the judiciary; reports, hearings, and laws from the legislative branch; and regulations, audits, grants, and other materials from the executive branch." This includes not only statutes and court decisions, but also administrative agency regulations, and supporting and background materials for these materials.

It's an ambitious project, which would create some order out of the numerous sites, both government-sponsored and sponsored by non-profits, schools, and even for-profit companies, that currently offer free access to legal materials.

Malamud has already put a lot of legal materials up on his PublicResource.org site, often in raw form: cases from federal appellate courtsCalifornia's building, fire, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical codes; and copyrights.  In addition to the raw material, Malamud's site documents the battles -- some successful, some not -- that he's had to wage to get access to government material

Law.gov advocates are not out to hurt commercial publishers; their goal is to make the "raw material" of the law available (not only by law.gov and its affiliates, but by government entities themselves), which can be used by other entities -- both for-profit and non-profit -- to create "value-added" services based on the basic government material.

But there are some entities that may have concerns about this: mainly, those with an economic interest in maintaining the status quo.  These include some of the private publishers which charge for this information; some government entities that claim a copyright in the "works" they create (and receive payment from those who publish it); and private entities that promulgate codes and standards -- such as building and electrical codes -- which they encourage be adopted as legal standards, but on which they assert copyright and for which they charge to access.

This was my first direct involvement in the law.gov initiative, but I've followed it as an outsider. It was interesting to see who was present at the session: primarily legal information specialists (e.g., law librarians) and academics.  So much of the discussion focused on the value of law.gov on an academic and policy level, and I found myself adding a bit of a practical perspective (even though I may not be the best attorney to do so).

Throughout the day, the discussions focused on the various aspects of the planned report, and how to move forward.  There were discussions on addressing copyright issues; technical and non-technical issues and standards and procedures; and strategies in moving forward with the project.

It will be interesting to see Malamud's report, and to follow the law.gov initiative as it moves forward.  It's certainly about time that the full breath of American legal information be available for free online, to both professionals (lawyers) and ordinary citizens.

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