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More Free and Open Source Law Resources has a good summary of projects seeking to make opinions, statutes, and other legal materials free. The history of these efforts goes back to the early 90s, but the recent changes may the ones to threaten the big shots. According to the article Public Resource now offers “virtually all of the Federal Reporter second and third series, said to be the equivalent of 1,858 volumes of case law.” The link to the courts resource seems broken (kept displaying directory page) but assuming it will work just as the other services on Public.Resource do (Smithsonian, House of Representatives, and Dept. of Commerce are covered by the group as well), that will be a big step in offering open access to the law.

Still, one may wonder whether these services will offer the search tools that lawyers rely on to find that illusive, (o.k. mythological for the most part) on-all-fours case. Well, it seems that the reason for offering these materials “is not to create a primary research archive — although the collection can be searched using Google’s “search this site” function — but to encourage other developers to build new tools for searching and using these cases.” Wow, let the developing commence. AltLaw has started such an effort and PreCyDent has as well. PreCyDent will be use the Public.Resource material and stay free but it does plan to use ads to generate revenue. It claims to have its own algorithm and will incorporate social networking to connect lawyers and lay people. These two ideas are not my favorite. Of course this offering requires money but ads seem to drive into privacy problems in light of the material being searched and social networking sounds like code for “Need a lawyer? Call X! NOW!” Rather annoying possibilities but if one has no other way to find the information it is better than nothing.

Another offering, the Public Library of Law, seems to be a free version of FastCases’s service. So one can find much but full functionality or if one prefers the bells and whistles to be more efficient cost money and use of Fast Case’s services.

So some good, some not so good, but an interesting mirror of ad-based, open source, free-ware, and other Web business models are in play. Whether these will supplant the West and Lexis folks remains to be seen. It may force them to improve their search functions. Then again these options may be filling an unaddressed market that West and Lexis could attack too.

Issues that may arise seem to include how to cite (Does anyone know the latest on page numbering and West? I have lost track of that one). A government supported free database does not seem likely, but it might be cool. Then again private developers or a foundation might offer firms a less costly version of the West or Lexis services and subsidize simple searches on the Web. Hmm I wonder what public law libraries spend on maintaining the text versions? I like the text for certain reasons but it may be that the amount spent there could fund a group system of public, no-ads offered, searchable law.

No matter what, these changes may open up possibilities for solo and small firms. In addition, others such as non-profits or just an eager, interested cictizen who cannot afford West and/or Lexis seem to have some great and ever-improving tools to use. One safety tip to all: it seems that the status of a case feature (a.k.a. Shepard’s which told one information such as overruled, cert. denied, etc.) is not always available on some of these services. So beware going into court full of vim, vigor and then it turns out vanity.