Open Law?

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:

(Hey, remember when I said that I was taking a break from blogging?  Well, I lied.  I’m a liar.  And, more to the point, a procrastinator. So I am blogging instead of packing for my imminent move to Indiana. La!)

As I alluded to in my last post, we are at a magical time in libraries because technology and librarian interest are finally at the point where we can make some viable LibPunk alternatives to corporate products and services.   And most of this is because of the “opens”…Open Access, Open Source, Open Standards, etc.

There’s a lot of confusion about what these topics mean.  I’ve seen Open Access and Open Source topics put in the same conference presentation when really the only thing that they have in common is the word “open.”  Happily, yesterday Dorthea Salo broke down all the “Opens” into a handy guide.  I highly recommend checking that post out.

As you may know, Gentle Reader, one of my major topics of interest/bones to pick with the rest of the world is the Free Law movement.   I wonder if maybe we should start calling it the Open Law movement…would that would put it in a better light with people unfamiliar with the issues?  As someone once said to me in a bar, “People don’t respect free stuff because they don’t think it’s worth anything.”   (Yes, I think the Free Law stuff is an appropriate conversational topic in when hanging out in bars. I am Just. That. Cool.)  So, anyway, that statement blew my mind. Granted, I was a little tipsy, but THINK ABOUT IT.

Just for the heck of it, here’s my interpretation of Open Law, using the framework that Dorothea Salo used in her “Battle of the Opens” blog post.


What is being made open? The primary legal materials from a multitude of jurisdictions – federal though the 50 states and 1000s of municipalities.  These include, but are not limited to: court cases, legislation, administrative regulations and codes.

What legal regimes are implicated? That’s the kicker…NONE.  Primary legal materials are created by government bodies and therefore should be free to use by anyone.  Of course, that didn’t stop the state of Oregon from asserting copyright on its code.  As I noted earlier, there is the slight the problem that the finding aids to wade through this massive amount of law are proprietary systems owned by a small number of large corporations.  And the secondary materials that are really necessary for fully understanding and researching law are under copyright protection.

How does openness happen? Organizations like AALL and Public.Resource lobby and harass the government until they start doing things like releasing the Federal Register in XML.  Then organizations like the Cornell Legal Information Institute, Open Congress or Justia take the information and make it more user friendly.  A lot of this is computer stuff that I don’t fully understand so I just generally give it the blanket term “MAGIC.”

Again, with the law, openess only goes so far.  As Rich Leiter recently wrote, librarians need to work on creating meaningful access to the law as well.  We should also be trying to get more Open Access to secondary materials.

Free law is dead…long live Open Law?  Whaddya think?


  3 comments for “Open Law?

  1. March 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    I think it’s cool, but I’m very biased that way.

    A while ago, an acquaintance of mine, who is a Code4Lib Geek master, referred to Open Source as “a brand” … at the time, we were brainstorming on how to increase awareness/build support for what was being called “the information commons” (not the physical space, but the notion of fair use and knowledge sharing, et al.) The “Open” brand has gotten even bigger, so there’s good reason to leverage it.

    Personally, I’d put the FreeLaw/AltLaw under the umbrella of Open Content, which also includes Open Access, Open Data (especially as it cross-links with the Gov 2.0 movement), Creative Commons, pro-fair use efforts. But I’m still working on big picture framing, so take with a dash of salt. If Open Law gets us there quicker, sign me up.

  2. Mikhail Koulikov
    March 18, 2010 at 10:35 am

    I dunno; from the point of view of someone who gets paid to know how to find legal materials the fastest and/or most effective way possible, I’m a little less than enthusiastic about this whole ‘open law’ business. The big question for someone like me is, ‘so it’s ten years from now, and if Open Law is what there is, will firms even need librarians/research specialists any more?’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *