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.
It would allow major search engines such as Google and Yahoo to index court cases.
Malamud also expects niche online services will emerge and develop innovative new methods for searching, categorizing and adding value to court rulings.
"Lawyers are very poorly served by the services available now," Malamud said.
About 80 percent of court cases have been compiled by two companies -- The Thomson Corporation and LexisNexis, Malamud said.
The lack of competition has led to a lack of innovation, he said.
An annual subscription to legal archives created by Thomson or LexisNexis can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some smaller database firms also sell court cases online, charging $5 on average for an entire case.
The federal government makes court rulings available on the Internet, but it charges 8 cents a page -- an entire court case often runs hundreds of pages.
"We think all local, state and federal cases and codes need to be available online without restriction, and for free," Malamud said.
Public.resource.org has partnered with several powerful Internet advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons, which is led by the influential Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig.
Tim Stanley, who now runs the legal Web site Justia, said the release of the 1.8 million court documents will have immediate results.