The case against PACER: tearing down the courts' paywall
"The importance of public access to the law
Public access to court records might seem like something only lawyers would care about, but James Grimmelmann, a professor at New York Law School, disagrees. "If there are secret laws, it's really hard to say that those are laws in any meaningful sense at all," Grimmelmann says. "There are lots of areas of law in which the statute is very short, but the case law is incredibly long and important." For example, the statutory definition of fair use is only about a paragraph long. To understand how the concept will be applied by the courts, you need to review the hundreds of judicial opinions that have defined its contours.
To ensure broad public access, the courts have long held that court records are not subject to copyright.
Grimmelmann also points out that public access to court records keeps courts honest. If court activities are secret, the public will have no way to verify that the court's procedures and decisions are fair and consistent with the law. Public access also promotes equality before the law by ensuring that those of limited means will not be disadvantaged by a lack of access to information.
To ensure broad public access, the courts have long held that court records are not subject to copyright. That means that once a user has obtained a court document, he is generally free to redistribute it without payment. But until the rise of the Internet, practical barriers limited the dissemination of legal records. Courts produce millions of pages of documents every year, and it would have been impractical to distribute paper copies of every document to public libraries. In principle, anyone could have physically driven down to a courthouse and asked to see copies of court records, but practically speaking only practicing lawyers and a handful of sophisticated journalists and academics knew how to navigate this system successfully.
Broader and more convenient access to court records allows greater public understanding and scrutiny of our legal system. As information technology makes broader availability economically feasible, public officials have an obligation to respond by using those technologies to expand public access."
The solution, in part: a Firefox extension
Firefox extension liberates US court docs from paywall
"As Lee explained in his previous article, the revenue generated by PACER's paywall far exceeds the amount of money needed to run the system. The operating costs could be further reduced through much-needed consolidation and other changes. The RECAP system is an important vehicle for encouraging open access and moving the system forward. It also reflects the growth of an emerging movement that seeks to boost government transparency through data availability.
A number of similar projects have popped up recently with the goal of making the inner workings of the government visible to regular citizens via the Internet. An example is OpenRegs.com, a website established in June by Mercatus Center researcher Jerry Brito and programmer Peter Snyder to help people navigate federal regulations. The government itself is also pushing a number of important data transparency projects, such as the new Data.gov website that was launched in may by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra to aggregate government data sets in machine-readable formats."