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Law School To Make U.S. Case Law Archive Public Online

By Andrew M. Duehren and Claire E. Parker, Crimson Staff Writers

By mid-2017, Harvard Law School’s entire collection of United States case law will be available for public search through a new online legal platform, Ravel Law, which will provide the contents of its database for bulk access for free over the next eight years.

While case law documents are nominally within the public realm, actually accessing them often requires paying an intermediary like LexisNexis or Westlaw.

“What comes from a judge's quill should be freely available to all,” Jonathan L. Zittrain, the director of the Law School library, wrote in an email. “This project is a step along an overdue path towards making the law worldwide freely available and searchable through as many means as there are games in an app store.”

The project, dubbed “Free the Law,” will roll out case law in phases, first releasing California case law this fall. Ravel will present visual guides that aim to break down complex legal concepts, according to Ravel’s website.

Six full-time librarians at the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory are using a high-tech scanner for the first time to digitize up to 500,000 pages a day, according to Adam B. Ziegler, the manager of special projects at the Law School library. Ravel is helping to financially support the expensive digitization effort.

The initiative aims to make the practice of law easier for the public to understand and access and more equitable for smaller or less wealthy legal advocates, organizers and supporters of the project said.

“Using technology to create broad access to legal information will help create a more transparent and more just legal system,” Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow said in a statement.

Zittrain, who is also a Law School professor and faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, taught Daniel Lewis, the chief executive of Ravel, as a student at Stanford Law. Lewis founded Ravel in 2012, and the inspiration for the digitization project was born out of a conversation between professor and former student, according to Zittrain.

In a statement, Lewis said that the desire to make legal records publicly accessible drove Ravel’s decision to collaborate with the Law School.

“By collaborating together on this digitization effort, we hope to provide the public with unique and powerful ways to find and understand the law,” Lewis said.

The announcement of the project comes as the digitization of scholarly materials becomes a priority across Harvard’s library system. The Harvard College Library Digitization Program has undertaken similar efforts in recent years to make collections across the College libraries available online. Zittrain wrote in an email that the Law School effort, though consistent with the University-wide push, has more practical applications.

“It's consonant with those efforts, though with materials that have a special meaning, since they represent not only materials of scholarly interest, but the law itself,” he wrote.

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