President Obama issued an executive order last month calling on the federal government to open access to public documents by making them “open and machine readable.” He called on government information to be “managed as an asset throughout its life cycle to promote interoperability and openness, and, wherever possible and legally permissible, to ensure that data are released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable.”
Well, I can think of a huge dataset waiting to be opened: case law from the US Federal District and Appellate Courts. Right now, some of the case law is published in slip format (the unofficial decision) in FDSys. It is machine readable, and contains metadata – both good things, consistent with this directive. However, it’s not official. If we are to take the White House mandate seriously, the official, published case law (issued by a private publisher), should be hosted in FDSys. This would make it “usable” under the Order.
In support of this move, President Obama references the release of government GPS and weather data, which encouraged entrepreneurs to create applications and tools of value to the American people.
Imagine what an open, machine readable database of federal case law could do for entrepreneurs – and by that token, consumers. Already, startups like Ravel Law and Judicata are trying to make legal search more intuitive, efficient, and cheap. These companies are handicapped, however, by lack of access to the official data from the government. By allowing Thompson West to publish and copyright federal (and state) case law, the government is propping up the monopoly and stifling innovation in the market. If entrepreneurs want the case law, they have to pay for it.