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The Almighty Buck Government The Courts News Your Rights Online

Firefox Plugin Liberates Paywalled Court Records 145

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 Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:06AM (#29064407) Journal

    I had to get a PACER account when I filed bankruptcy, so that I could monitor my case and download the documents related to it. It's ridiculous how it works -- they charge you $0.03 for every page that you download. It's like going to the local library and paying to use the copy machine, except in this case it's completely electronic and costs them no consumables. Why are they allowed to charge so much for access to the public record? It seems like a reasonable amount to ask if you went to the local court house and started printing hard copies but $0.03/page for a PDF document? Really?

    Kudos to the people who came up with this idea. Now if we only had a free way to search case law. You can access the current Federal and State statues from the relevant Government websites but you have no easy way to do the same for case law, which is at least as important under our legal system. Most of the services to do this are paid ones (Lexis Nexis), I've yet to come across a decent free one.

  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:15AM (#29064497)
    The court papers scanned, organized and posted themselves.
  • by JSBiff ( 87824 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:21AM (#29064555) Journal

    I'm a US citizen and pay thousands of dollars a year in Federal taxes. Why should I pay *more* to access public court documents from the Federal courts? If the issue is the costs of hosting the documents on servers, this project, by its mere existence, shows that there are people who will gladly shoulder the cost of hosting the documents, so others can access them for free. If the issue is the cost of having people redact documents where necessary, and scan them in (in the situations where the documents aren't electronic to begin with), that should just be part of the costs of court clerks, which our tax dollars pay for *anyhow*.

  • Re:Nice job... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:21AM (#29064559) Journal
    Is making a fairly inexpensive program self supporting really more important than ensure citizen's access to the law? Really?

    If so, I propose another initiative: "1-900-THE-COPS" is a new "991 Premium" service offering enhanced access to law enforcement for a modest fee...

    Joking aside, there are plenty of areas where running government as lean as possible makes sense; but nickle-and-diming justice seems like a terrible plan.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:27AM (#29064617)

    Wait, court maintain the records on servers, pays people to take care of them and maintain them, have people to imagine or record the files at windows or over the internet...then why should not court charge for documents? You think people who work at the court should not get paid? Just because that information is free to view, does not mean you should not pay for it to obtain.

      You buy books and CDs that have long expired trademarks for money because someone put them together. You pay to receive your driving records, reprints of your tax forms, and for using libraries. Why all of a sudden you think you should not pay for all the machinery put in place so you can get easy access to the billions of documents in court system? Do you think magic gnomes work for morning dew work there?

      (There is no such thing as free lunch.)

      p.s. Also people who can not pay, and with prove, can have fee waivers. So the system is designed in such a way that people who can pay -pay, people who can not, still have access. That ensures fairness of access to people who have no monetary ability. It is not perfect, but such system pays for its usage of the court system - besides filing fees, which work the same way.


    God forbids that Courts would charge people to implement new technology for peoples convenience.

      Also, such programs undermines from those who have no fancy computers and IT knowledge, but who actually require the most help. The truly needy, who really need access to courts operations will suffer with lost revenue. Yes, don't pay for documents online, obviously because only you should get paid for your work. All those those computers are ran by magical gnomes.


  • by rickyars ( 619739 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:30AM (#29064637)

    I agree that stuff like this should be free since it is, after all, subsidized by our tax dollars.

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

  • by BadAnalogyGuy ( 945258 ) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:38AM (#29064747)

    It's not just for bandwidth, but for the total maintenance of the system.

    If you read deeper, there is a cap on fees per case of $2.40, so (using their example) if a case has 50 pages of documents, you would only need to pay $2.40 instead of the full $4.00.

    I'm sure they would love someone to take this responsibility off their hands. Here's their FAQ for usage:

    What are the acceptable uses of the data obtained from the PACER system?
    The PACER system provides electronic access to case information from federal courts across the United States. The information gathered from the PACER system is a matter of public record and may be reproduced without permission. However, the PACER customer assumes all responsibility for consequences that arise from use of the data.

    There are only a handful of things that the government should be involved in. This is definitely one of them.

  • by AndrewNeo ( 979708 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @09:45AM (#29064815) Homepage

    I think it makes sense. Instead of spending tax dollars on something very few people (in contrast to the total number of taxpayers,) it's paid with by a per-use fee. If anything there's probably more tax-paid government services that could be handled this way.

  • by the phantom ( 107624 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:26AM (#29065297) Homepage
    You are so right. We should only pay user fees. Then we won't have to pay for the things we don't use. I know that, for me, personally, this would save a hell of a lot of money, seeing as I don't use the military, welfare, medicaid, medicare, or social security!
  • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:42AM (#29065523) Journal
    I'm guessing Google and Scribd and many others could make enough off the ads to host everything without blinking an eye.

    Why does everyone acknowledge that people are willing to pay a lot of money for propaganda, yet not make the connection that this propaganda is so effective at leading people astray that they'll pay a lot of money for it and recognize that inducing people to mindless behavior has a social cost of it's own? When you run an effective ad campaign and manipulate people behavior, it's basically induced insanity. It ought to be a criminal act.
  • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:45AM (#29065567) Homepage

    > 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?

    a) Lawyers will only use unofficial sources like RECAP for research. Material that they intend to use in court will be downloaded from PACER and thus you will be caught.

    b) Judges have no reason not to use PACER for everything since they don't pay the fees and do need to be sure they are looking at official versions. Thus you will be caught again.

    However, this will encourage lawyers on small budgets to do much more wide-ranging research, will allow penurious litigants to have access to court records, and allow the general public to more easily follow cases.

  • by thejynxed ( 831517 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:46AM (#29065589) Homepage

    There is no way a few public users can keep up with hundreds of attorneys filing thousands of documents each day in all these courts.

    And that right there, is a very sad fact that should never have been allowed to exist.

  • by localman57 ( 1340533 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:49AM (#29065627)
    But you're assuming that I'm downloading the document to use specifically as-is, in the judicial system. What if I'm interested in reading, for instance, the i4i v. Microsoft case above for my own entertainment and education? What's to keep one party or the other from uploading a version of the document with stuff they don't like modified? It might not work in court, but it could confuse the public, or cause you to abandon one potentially valid avenue of research you might otherwise have pursued, had the document not been falsified. It's easy to see how this could appeal to people. Just look how many people put up false stuff on Wikipedia. Except in this case, the only way for me to refute what is in RECAP is to pay money to buy my own copy of the document from PACER.

    Are you absolutely sure the RIAA or similar wouldn't potentially try to do this if a bad case came down against them? Once a falsehood starts circulating, it's very hard to kill.
  • by localman57 ( 1340533 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @10:53AM (#29065663)

    Lawyers will only use unofficial sources like RECAP for research.

    Exactly! And that's why it's worth falsifying. If I can convince you, through your own research, that what you're trying to do against me has been proven not to work, then you'll give up. When in fact, perhaps your research would have shown that what you were trying to do in fact worked very well!

  • by poetmatt ( 793785 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:03AM (#29065815) Journal

    The thing is, pacer records are intended to be public and supposed to be free. Lieberman has asked about this before [arstechnica.com]. The creation of documents online was supposed to make them free eventually, specifically.

  • by aminorex ( 141494 ) on Friday August 14, 2009 @06:47PM (#29072003) Homepage Journal

    Wars, yeah, okay, but not laws.

Lend money to a bad debtor and he will hate you.