A scrappy Sebastopol Internet pioneer who pushed the federal government to put corporate filings and patent documents online for anyone to see has made his first big move to force the U.S. court system to do the same.
This week, Carl Malamud posted free electronic copies of every U.S. Supreme Court decision and Court of Appeals ruling since 1950.
Malamud hopes the database of 1.8 million rulings -- equivalent to a row of law books longer than a football field -- will inspire Internet users to demand that all court rulings be made available online for free.
In the process, it could disrupt the business model of the $5 billion legal publishing industry, just as the music industry and newspapers have been forced to deal with the explosion of free content on the Internet.
"This is a huge first step in getting all court cases online," said Tim Stanley, co-founder of FindLaw.com, a popular legal site that he sold in 2001. "I don't think anyone could have done this except for Carl."
In 1994, Malamud spearheaded the drive that forced the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Patent and Trademark Office to make public filings available online at no cost. Now anybody can do a Google search and quickly find an annual report for a publicly-traded company.
Malamud wants every court ruling online for free, and he is employing the same tactics he used against the government in 1994.
The release of 1.8 million rulings Monday is just the first in a series that will eventually put 10 million rulings online for free, Malamud said. The rulings will be available for bloggers, journalists, nonprofit organizations and lawyers who cannot afford expensive legal case histories.
"There is nothing like a huge user base," Malamud said. "It becomes a lot harder to ignore if you are a politician."
With public demand on his side, he hopes to pressure politicians to change the laws so that courts are required to make digital archives available for free.