Free Law Project provides access to legal materials and research for public

Taylor A. Vega/Staff

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The Free Law Project, a new California nonprofit, launched Tuesday and will provide free and easy access to legal material and research for anyone to download.

The nonprofit seeks to organize and distribute U.S. court opinions to the public. Although all court documents and legal opinions are free of copyright restrictions and technically in the public domain, they are currently difficult to find and access without paying a substantial fee — an issue the Free Law Project aims to resolve.

The organization was founded by School of Information assistant professor Brian Carver and UC Berkeley alumnus Michael Lissner. It will act as an umbrella organization for a number of technologies, including CourtListener, which alerts its users about new legal cases of interest that are posted on different court websites each day.

All the code for the Free Law Project, like CourtListener, is open-source, which allows the public to bulk-download any of its content.

“Anybody could download everything that runs our website, and they could start their own CourtListener today,” Carver said. “Even if Michael and I ran out of money or had a tragic accident, someone else could pick up the cause right where we left off.”

However, CourtListener only collects new court opinions from when it was installed in early 2010. The founders have been working for the past four years to fill in historical cases dating back to the 18th century to make the site a more useful research tool.

Carver said legal technology startups also frequently use the Free Law Project to access the documents and raw materials they need, enabling startups to focus their energy and financial resources on developing their ideas and technology.

Daniel Lewis, CEO of Ravel Law, a search platform for lawyers to do research, said his startup used material from the nonprofit to analyze and find gaps in its own data.

“Having databases like this could allow a number of other people to do things with legal information that they’ve never been able to do before or were previously prohibitively expensive,” Lewis said.

In August, the UC Academic Senate passed an open-access policy to make UC research publicly available. The policy is part of a larger national movement to provide open access to federally funded research publications.

“I’m amazed it’s taken this long for someone to do this. That’s nutty in the day of the Internet,” said Michael Eisen, a campus biology professor who was one of the first promoters of open access, about the project. “The more government-produced information is available, the more it changes people’s expectations for other information.”

But Carver highlighted important differences between academic research and legal materials, particularly regarding copyright laws.

“We’re dealing with (legal materials) that should be in the public domain to begin with and should be copyable by anyone for any reason,” Carver said. “There is no author to grant permission or not, and so that we even have this problem at all is a bit of a shocker.”

Somin Park covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected].