One key bottleneck to innovation is the difficulty getting at the written law—legal statutes, regulations, and judicial opinions. Most of it is tied up in privately-owned books and databases like Westlaw and LexisNexis, and the intellectual property rights are still holding up innovation. That’s why open access to law is so important.

1992–Today
The Free Access to Law Movement

The Free Access to Law Movement began with the founding of the Cornell Legal Information Institute (LII) in 1992. Many other LIIs have been founded since then, and constitute the majority of Free Access to Law Movement members. The contents of LII databases varies. The Cornell LII publishes US law, including Supreme Court decisions, the US Constitution and Code, federal rules and regulations, and internet-accessible state laws. It is extremely useful for what it contains, but it is difficult to use the Cornell LII as a primary legal research tool. CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute, is a primary publisher of Canadian cases and decisions. My understanding is that many Canadian lawyers do rely on CanLII as their primary legal research provider.

Another notable effort is Public.Resource.Org, a repository of public domain government information and law founded by Carl Malamud. Public.Resource.Org actively challenges barriers to access globally, with particular emphasis on US laws. However, there is no “front end” to Public.Resource.Org, so there is no way to use it as a legal research tool. Public.Resource.Org can be incorporated into legal research tools, but it exists primarily to ensure that law is available in the public domain, not to make it accessible.

The Free Access to Law Movement, Public.Resource.Org, and others are doing important work to expand access to law, but—at least in the United States—significant barriers remain. If Public.Resource.Org folded, it’s not clear who would continue to push for open access.

Published on January 15th, 2021. Last updated on May 18th, 2021, by Sam Glover.