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Last Thursday, Harvard Law Library and Ravel Law announced a partnership they call “Free the Law.” In short, Harvard is digitizing their entire library of U.S. Case Law, which includes materials going back to pre-revolutionary days, and putting them into Ravel’s system, to be available free of charge.

The project is ambitious, and won’t be done overnight — even scanning half a million pages a week, they’re not expecting to have it fully developed for 2 years. However, it also provides a great opportunity for researchers everywhere to have access to case law. They’ve also agreed to release the full database for bulk use (that is, data mining and so on) within 8 years.

Is this a game-changer? Yes, and no. Google Scholar already has a free database of modern case law (since 1960 for most courts, and going back as far as 1791 for some) that anyone with an internet connection can search as easily as using Google, so from that respect, this really only fills the historical gap. Moreover, those older cases, especially those prior to the Great Depression, are more useful to academics than to practitioners or citizens in general, as they become attenuated from the modern day.

However, the fact that Harvard is partnering with Ravel makes this more interesting to me. Ravel is a relatively new platform that is focused on performing analytics on cases, which they use to connect cases together and highlighting the significant passages of cases. The data from this pool of case law will greatly improve the effectiveness and value of what Ravel provides, and in turn, will add value to the case law in the system. The open availability of the database also means that intrepid data hounds will be able to conduct extensive analysis of U.S. case law that was hampered by the difficulty of finding it all in a single place.

The other caveat I’ll toss out is that the project is only for case law. Most new law in the US is either statutes or administrative regulations, and those appear to be absent from this project (at least, for now). However, I’m still excited to get access to the treasure trove of case law data and to see what the data team at Ravel is able to do with it.