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Firefox Plugin Liberates Paywalled Court Records 145

Posted by kdawson
from the free-as-in-beer dept.
Timothy B. Lee writes "If you want to access federal court records, you're often forced to use PACER, a cumbersome, paywalled Web site run by the federal judiciary. My colleagues and I at Princeton's Center for IT Policy have released a new Firefox extension called RECAP that allows users to automatically upload the documents they download from PACER into a public archive hosted by the Internet Archive. It also saves users money by automatically notifying them if a document they're searching for is available for free from the public archive. Over time, we hope to build a comprehensive, free repository of federal court records that's available to everyone."
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Firefox Plugin Liberates Paywalled Court Records

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  • by guruevi (827432) <<evi> <at> <smokingcube.be>> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:04AM (#29064387) Homepage

    I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn.gmail@com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:12AM (#29064469) Journal

    I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

    They probably are, but FOIA is a long and timely process. Surely for court documents that do not require any review before release, there could be an easier way? From PACER's FAQ [uscourts.gov]:

    Why are there user fees for PACER?
    In 1988, the Judiciary sought funding through the appropriation process to establish the capability to provide electronic public access services. Rather than appropriating additional funds for this purpose, Congress specifically directed the Judiciary to fund that initiative through the collection of user fees. As a result, the program relies exclusively on fee revenue.

    The fee is eight cents per page you wish to view. While I don't agree with this now, I could maybe see how in 1988 this nominal fee would be needed for the transfer of this data. Today, bandwidth is cheap for documents. Bring on the Firefox extension and public.resource.org hosting! I think they should allow a bidding contract with "free" being the only option ... I'm guessing Google and Scribd and many others could make enough off the ads to host everything without blinking an eye. Hell, Google's doing it for patents, why not federal court documents?

  • by FlyingSquidStudios (1031284) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:21AM (#29064551) Homepage
    If they are scanning all of them as part of procedure, then there should be no extra charge for referencing them later.
  • by wampus (1932) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:29AM (#29064633)

    So are user fees automatically bad everywhere? Toll roads, fuel taxes, school registration, and so on all fit the same criteria. You are paying tax to support *some* of it, but it seems fair to make the people who are actually using a service pay more.

  • Patience (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Taylor123456789 (1354177) <jheard@m s n .com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:51AM (#29064867)

    As a lawyer who has used Pacer for many years, my first reaction was the same. Why am I paying for something with no marginal cost that should be free in the first place? However, look at the alternative: driving down to the courthouse and making physical photocopies at even greater expense.

    I then learned that they are using the money to build their IT infrastructure to allow even better access. Of course, they will probably never remove the fees, but $.03 is really quite cheap compared to say, Lexis or Westlaw which charge about $100 per day to access their data without a subscription.

    Right now, it is optional for lawyers (some courts even charge you to do it) to file electronic versions of your documents. Eventually, all lawyers will file electronic versions of their documents, and access will be better.

    I support public.resource.org which is attempting to make all government laws free online.

    The wheels of justice move slowly but surely.

  • by blueg3 (192743) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:07AM (#29065045)

    It actually makes more sense to always charge the same amount for a page, and choose a fee such that you manage to cover your costs.

    The real problem is that to most incensed Libertarians assume the marginal cost should be the total cost. Apparently overhead does not exist.

  • by localman57 (1340533) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:10AM (#29065077)
    If the system relies on my uploading documents that I downloaded from the court, how does it authenticate the validity of those documents? Suppose I'm a patent troll lawyer. What's to keep me (aside from non-technical disciplinary stuff) from downloading documents that have unfavorable rulings to patet troll companies, then modifying them to make it look like the precident is different, and uploading them to RECAP? It seems like this could be a good way to derail the competition.
  • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:13AM (#29065115) Journal

    But you're mistaken if you think it costs them nothing to make available to you these electronic documents

    What makes you assume that I think it costs them nothing? It obviously costs them something. I just question whether or not it costs so much that they need to charge $0.03/page for a PDF document.

    They have to (1) buy and maintain servers and storage, (2) pay the people to install and maintain that hardware, and (3) pay for electricity and cooling.

    They'd have to do all that anyway. The courts would still be keeping these documents even if PACER wasn't around to make the easily available to the public. So the question is how much extra does having the PACER functionality cost?

  • by Rydia (556444) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:39AM (#29065477)

    It's not really a concern or a problem. If you're relying upon a holding or an order from a court, your opponent is going to go and get their own copy of that order (sure, maybe they go to RECAP). They will notice that what you said doesn't match up with the official record and tell the judge. Heck, when you file a brief relying on the order, you're going to get stopped by the judge anyway because (at least in my experience), the judge is going to ignore everything except your overall argument regarding that opinion/order, and then just go and read the opinion/order himself (off PACER, since it doesn't cost the judge anything). At best, you didn't include any of the lying bits. At worst (say the local rules required you to attach the case to your filing), you're essentially lying to the court. Judges aren't big fans of this. Lawyers and judges are (generally) not idiots. The possibility of this scheme actually working is so incredibly remote that you'd have to be nuts to try it.

  • by Diacritic (791165) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:02AM (#29065801)
    So we should stop allowing people to file documents with the courts? Or should we stop allowing documents to be available for public use? Which "fact" are you referring to?
  • by Pfhool (744) on Friday August 14, 2009 @12:03PM (#29066769)

    I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

    They probably are, but FOIA is a long and timely process.

    FOIA only applies to the executive branch.

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