Codifying Commonsense – the Principles

I am very pleased and proud to add my signature to the LAW.GOV PRINCIPLES AND DECLARATION just posted at  These principles coalesced during the fifteen workshops and have received the unanimous consent of the co-covenors of these workshops.  The principles include items that we librarians have discussed for years, even decades, like vendor-neutral citation.  And these principles are consistent with the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform States Laws (NCCUSL) draft of a new “Authentication and Preservation of State Electronic Legal Materials Act.”

Here are the principles:

The primary legal materials of the United States are the raw materials of our democracy. They should be made more broadly available to enable an informed citizenry.

Primary legal materials include documents of primary authority issued by governmental bodies, such as court opinions, statutes, and regulations. They also include the supporting documents and other media issued and maintained by those bodies, such as dockets, hearings, forms, oral arguments, and legislative histories. These materials can be found in every branch, at every level, national, tribal, state and local, and should be available to anyone with the will and the heart to obtain them.

The following principles should govern the dissemination of primary legal materials in the United States:

1. Direct fees for dissemination of primary legal materials should be avoided.

2. Limitations on access through terms of use or the assertion of copyright on primary legal materials is contrary to long-standing public policy and core democratic principles and is misleading to citizens.

3. Primary legal materials should be made available using bulk access mechanisms so they may be downloaded by anyone.

4. The primary legal materials, and the methods used to access them, should be authenticated so people can trust in the integrity of these materials.

5. Historical archives should be made available online and in a static location to the extent possible.

6. Vendor- and media-neutral citation mechanisms should be employed.

7. Technical standards for document structure, identifiers, and metadata should be developed and applied as extensively as possible.

8. Data should be distributed in a computer-processable, non-proprietary form in a manner that meets best current practices for the distribution of open government data. That data should represent the definitive documents, not just aggregate, preliminary, or modified forms.

9. An active program of research and development should be sponsored by governmental bodies that issue primary legal materials to develop new standards and solutions to challenges presented by the electronic distribution of definitive primary legal materials. Examples include the automated detection and redaction of private personal information in documents.

10. An active program of education, training, and documentation should be undertaken to help governmental bodies that issue primary legal materials learn and use best current practices.

Adherence to these principles by governmental bodies is not just good for democracy and justice, it will spur innovation and will encourage:

1. Broader use of legal materials in all parts of our education system, including our law schools.

2. Researchers in law schools, universities, and other research institutions to have broader access to bulk data, spurring important research on the functioning of our government.

3. Innovation in the legal information market by reducing barriers to entry.

4. Savings in the government’s own cost of providing these materials through adherence to best current practices.

5. Small businesses to understand rules and regulations they must deal with, reducing their costs and increasing their effectiveness.

6. Increased foreign trade by making it easier for our foreign partners to understand our laws.

7. Better access to justice by making legal information more broadly available to citizens.

How we distribute the raw materials of our democracy is a foundational issue in our system of government. Access to the raw materials of our democracy is a prerequisite for the rule of law and access to justice and makes real the principles of equal protection and due process.

and here are the signatories:

Jack M. Balkin
Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment
 Yale Law School 

Robert C. Berring, Jr.
Walter Perry Johnson Professor of Law
Berkeley Law, University of California 

James Boyle
William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law
 Duke Law School 

Nicholas Bramble
Postdoctoral Associate in Law
 Yale Law School 

Tom R. Bruce
Director, Legal Information Institute
 Cornell Law School 

Richard A. Danner
Archibald C. & Frances Fulk Rufty Research Professor of Law
 Duke Law School 

Laura E. DeNardis
Executive Director, Information Society Project
 Yale Law School 

Edward W. Felten
Professor of Computer Science & Public Affairs
 Princeton University 

Jerry Goldman
Professor & Director, Oyez Project
 Northwestern University 

Joseph Lorenzo Hall
Visiting Postdoctoral Research Associate
UC Berkeley and Princeton University

  Jennifer Jenkins
Director, Center for the Study of the Public Domain
 Duke Law School 

Mitchell Kapor
 Mitchell Kapor Foundation 

S. Blair Kauffman
Law Librarian and Professor of Law
 Yale Law School 

Mark A. Lemley
William H. Neukom Professor of Law
 Stanford Law School 

Lawrence Lessig
Professor of Law
 Harvard Law School 

Paul Lomio
Director, Robert Crown Law Library
 Stanford Law School 

Carl Malamud

Harry S. Martin III
Librarian & Professor of Law Emeritus
 Harvard Law School 

Peter W. Martin
Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law
 Cornell Law School 

John Mayer
Executive Director
Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction

  Judy Meadows
State Law Librarian
 State Law Library of Montana 

Paul Ohm
Associate Professor of Law and Telecommunications
University of Colorado Law School

  Tim O’Reilly
Chief Executive Officer
 O’Reilly Media 

John G. Palfrey
Henry N. Ess III Librarian & Professor of Law
 Harvard Law School 

Pamela Samuelson
Richard M. Sherman Distinguished Professor of Law
Berkeley Law, University of California

  Stuart Sierra
Assistant Director, Program on Law and Technology
 Columbia Law School 

Stephen Schultze
Associate Director, Center for Information Technology Policy
 Princeton University 

Tim Stanley
Chief Executive Officer

Erika V. Wayne
Deputy Director, Robert Crown Law Library
 Stanford Law School 

Christopher Wong
Postgraduate Fellow
 New York Law School 

Tim Wu
Professor of Law
 Columbia Law School 

Harlan Yu
Doctoral Student in Computer Science
 Princeton University 

Jonathan Zittrain
Professor of Law & Computer Science
 Harvard Law School

RECAP: cracking open US courtrooms

Any mention of PACER or RECAP will get our attention.   Just this week, RECAP made the news across the pond.  “RECAP: cracking open US courtrooms:  Access to US legal files is being transformed by a Napster-like sharing system called RECAP” by Bobbie Johnson appeared in the Guardian (11/11/2009).
The article starts off: “The legal system is often accused of lagging behind the technological curve – indeed, it is only a couple of years since a high court judge made headlines by saying: “I don’t really understand what a website is.” He later said that the remarks were taken out of context.”  [For more on *that* judge, see here and here.]

Quickly, Johnson moves on to discuss the development of PACER, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Court’s site for Public Access to Court Electronic Records.  (And, blogged about a lot on this site, here, here and here….)

The article continues:

“Their RECAP tool, as the name suggests, aims to turn PACER on its head: by making legal documents more easily available, and dramatically reducing the cost.

“All of the stuff in Pacer is, essentially, part of the law of the land,” says Harlan Yu, a Princeton PhD student and one of the trio behind Recap. “Our nation is governed by laws, and we feel like the law should be accessible to all. And being accessible, in this day and age, means that the law should be online where it’s most accessible to citizens in a way that is free.””

As the article closes, it brings up some of the privacy concerns confronting RECAP and PACER right now.


“For advocates, the bigger question is whether PACER objects: opening access to legal documents is an important part of expanding free data and free information. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson – who made his living practicing the law, among other things – who said that “information is the currency of democracy”.”

For now, the A.O. is in the midst of a survey and evaluation of PACER and the pilot program might re-launch sometime soon. . .In the meantime, go ahead and install RECAP on your library machines.

The Government on the Web: TMI?

Is the federal government giving us too much information on their websites?  Not quite, but Ed Felten, David Robinson, Harlan Yu and Bill Zeller argue in their new paper, “Government Data and the Invisible Hand,” that the government’s focus on creating and maintaining websites with pre-packaged reports and ready-to-digest data analysis is misguided.  The authors advocate, instead, strengthening the infrastructure behind the sites, with a focus on allowing public access to underlying data from federal agencies.

(Thanks to Ed Felten and his post on Freedom to Tinker)