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Harvard Law School to Provide Free Access to Case Law Database

Bostonian13, Wikimedia Commons
Written by Ethan M. Long

If all goes according to plan, the public will be able to view the entirety of Harvard Law School’s case law database for free by 2017, according to the Harvard Crimson. The group working on the project “Free the Law” has teamed up with relatively new digital platform, Ravel Law, seeking to provide open access to materials that might normally only be available through a paywall or subscription-based database.

“Sharing is good, and with digital technology, sharing is easy,” wrote GNU Project and Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman in a piece that ran in the Guardian in 2012. As we enter the second half of the second decade of the 21st Century, that sentence rings very true: the current state of the sharing economy is beneficial, as it allows the financially disadvantaged access to works of literature, art, and knowledge on a mass scale.

“This project is a step along an overdue path towards making the law worldwide freely available and searchable,” Harvard Law School Library Director Jonathan L. Zittrain told the Crimson.

Believing that knowledge of the law, and past cases, should be attainable by the public, the team has also been working on how to make sense of dense court documents for the average user.

It is the intersection of substantial content and technology that may define the 21st Century. Ravel, a tech company based in San Francisco, found an area where their tools could be used to perform a huge civil service. With the digitization of these documents, Ravel and Harvard Law join a community whose mission is to bring knowledge and ideas to everyone around the world, no matter what their background might be.

Last month, Judge Pierre N. Leval ruled in favor of Google’s Books Library Project, which includes “more than 30 million books,” according to Smithsonian Mag. While the case revolved around the snippet-view of copyrighted works, a good number of the books are still public domain, thus free and available to anyone with access to the Internet. The Books Library Project harkens back to the days when Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin worked at the Stanford Digital Library Project in the early 1990s. It is their work at the school that funded Google’s launch. Two decades earlier, Project Gutenberg, the first such project to digitize literature and important documents, was founded. It was in 1971 that, at the University of Illinois, founder Michael Hart put a copy of the Declaration of Independence online, accessible to anyone. This was, essentially, the first eBook.

RELATED:  Schengen Area, Europe: Freedom is an Open Road, the Internet Archive, has also been online since the 1990s, allowing users to upload public domain text, audio, video, and software. The Free Music Archive has hundreds of thousands of sets from popular bands such as Phish and Fugazi. The site also includes the Wayback Machine, which has been archiving the Internet for almost two decades.

In 2004, Michael Hart wrote Project Gutenberg’s mission statement, which shows the clear philosophy that carries over throughout services like Google Books and Ravel Law. “To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks,” he wrote, as it is simply shown on their “About” page. Whether it be eBooks, PDF files, other forms of text, art, music, film, speeches, discussions, or lectures, the goal of access to knowledge is attainable in the 21st Century.

Although, of course, there are those who wish to charge.

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for
themselves,” wrote Aaron Swartz in his 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which is available for free on He argues that the public must fight against what he calls the “privatization of knowledge.”

While Swartz’s legacy includes the founding of Demand Progress, the creation of RSS feeds, and the popular website Reddit, he may be remembered as a pioneer in open-source and open access. Swartz was found dead in an apparent suicide in 2013. After being caught using a computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download academic journals from JSTOR, a subscription-based digital library, the United States charged him with 13 counts of fraud. Swartz had intended to upload and release the documents to the public. He was a research fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption at the time of his arrest.

“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks,” he wrote in the manifesto.

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It has almost been three years since Swartz’s death, and just a little over four years since Hart passed away. As technology advances further into this century, their utilitarian philosophies of a better and more knowledgeable world won’t fade away.

Harvard and Ravel plan to allow anyone with an Internet connection access for the next eight years. There isn’t a clear answer as to what happens after that, but perhaps the next arbiter of knowledge will step in, joined by a wider group working towards open access.

Source: Harvard Crimson


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About the author

Ethan M. Long

Ethan Long is a journalist based out of Boston, MA.

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Harvard Law School to Provide Free Access to Case Law Database

by Ethan M. Long
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