See also this later post: Ravel Founder Daniel Lewis Discusses Today’s News of Partnership with Harvard to Digitize All Case Law.

Harvard Law School and Ravel Law today announced an initiative to digitize and make available to the public for free Harvard’s entire collection of U.S. case law, which it says is the most comprehensive and authoritative database of American law and cases available anywhere outside the Library of Congress.

The collection contains 40,000 books and 40 million pages of decisions from the federal courts and the courts of all 50 states, including original materials from cases that predate the U.S. Constitution.

The “Free the Law” initiative, as it is being called, will make these digitized materials available through the Ravel Law research platform. Ravel is providing millions of dollars to support the scanning project, according to the New York Times.

Case law for California jurisdictions will be online in November. The full collection of nationwide case law is expected to be digitized and searchable for free on Ravel Law by mid-2017. Harvard and Ravel have agreed to release the entire database for bulk use by anyone, including other commercial entities, within eight years.

“Libraries were founded as an engine for the democratization of knowledge, and the digitization of Harvard Law School’s collection of U.S. case law is a tremendous step forward in making legal information open and easily accessible to the public,” said Jonathan Zittrain, the George Bemis professor of international law at Harvard Law School and vice dean for library and information resources, in a press release issued this morning. “The materials in the library’s collection tell a story that goes back to the founding of America, and we’re proud to preserve and share that story.”

“We share with Harvard Law School a common belief that increasing access to our country’s legal records through technology will help make our legal system more transparent and just,” said Daniel Lewis, cofounder and CEO of Ravel Law, in the same press release. “By collaborating together on this digitization effort, we hope to provide the public with unique and powerful ways to find and understand the law.”

Update: After posting the above, I spoke to Jonathan Zittrain. He provided three other notes of interest:

  • For any jurisdiction that makes all of its law available online in a fully authoritative and citeable format, then all of the law from that jurisdiction that Harvard has scanned will come fully free and available online immediately, without having to wait the eight years. Currently, only two states qualify: Illinois and Arkansas.
  • Ravel will create an application programming interface (API) so that nonprofits can write apps and plug into the ecosystem of these cases, to create their own portals into the database.
  • The agreement with Ravel includes provisions by which researchers can obtain access to the full database.

He also said that nothing in the Harvard/Ravel agreement would prohibit Ravel from negotiating deals with other commercial entities to provide them access to this data prior to the expiration of the eight years.

The video below has more information.

  • “The agreement with Ravel includes provisions by which researchers can obtain access to the full database.” Who qualifies as a “researcher”?

    • Bob Ambrogi

      I don’t know the answer to that but hope to get further information.

  • I wonder if law schools will start teaching students on this platform for researching case law instead of Westlaw or Lexis.

  • avon

    The impact on solo practitioners will be huge. Who can afford thousands just to see what a case says, at least if a brick-and-mortar law library is in town? This will eliminate frequent wasting of time and effort in travel, xeroxing, etc. – and gain us published West headnotes, treatises and many other tools to analyze and apply that case besides what the jurisdiction includes in its online Reporters.

    But I’m distressed to see, in the article’s Update, that Harvard’s library dean says something the NYTimes didn’t – i.e., that all but two States, including my own state, must evidently suffer the eight-year waiting period because every single bit of the caselaw in their official Reporters must be included in what’s online. New York is obviously missing at least a case or two, like something from some municipal court in the 1740s …

    Speaking of digital age issues, I think it’s interesting that Harvard’s press release is dated today, while the Times published its article yesterday (and that article, with news and responses to it, was linked in the press release). So which came first – the news report, or the news itself?! I knew our “news cycle” is already far shorter than any good citizen should really need; “breaking” is what gets touted, tweaks adrenaline, and sells in a free-market media world. But I never thought the news cycle would be shrunk to less than zero!

    • Bob Ambrogi

      Just to be clear, all of the cases for all jurisdictions will be available free on the Ravel Law website.

  • Danial Boone

    This sounds like a wonderful service, but unfortunately will not include “unpublished cases”. I don’t think any cases that result in a decision that affects peoples lives should be unpublished. What about settlement cases with non disclosure agreements? These are kept secret from other victims with similar cases. It seems that the legal business is just that today, a business, with little to do with justice.

  • myshingle

    Maybe I am completely out of it, but I don’t see what this service is offering that Google Scholar didn’t make available 5 years ago. To me, this is another example of using technology to reinvent the wheel, when there are so many other resources – like legal briefs and unpublished decisions and court transcripts that are hard to obtain and should be made available.

    • Bob Ambrogi

      This is far more extensive than what is included in Google Scholar.

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