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Worldchanging Interview: James Grimmelmann on Open Access Law

By Nancy Scola

Grimmelmann.jpgJames Grimmelmann is something of a rare hybrid. As a former Microsoft programmer, he's an accomplished technologist. And as a graduate of Yale Law School and an associate professor at New York Law School, he's an accomplished legal scholar. When he looks at the world of U.S. law though his technology lens, he sees enormous potential for the Internet to break down the walls keeping legal code out of the reach of the general public.

When the state of Oregon filed suit against an online publisher, claiming copyright over the state's laws, Grimmelmann was provoked into action. He issued a white paper called "Copyright, Technology, and Access to the Law: An Opinionated Primer" that cited texts ranging from the ancient Code of Hammurabi to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to make a straightforward but powerful argument: if there ever was a decent case for why the law should be locked away, the Internet killed it.

James and his students draw inspiration from the Web, Wikipedia, and the open-source software movement, "which have proven time and again the value of combining mountains of data, standardized machine-readable formats, and a policy of open access." In an e-mail interview, James explained why the Open Access Law Project is an idea whose time has come.

What problems in the American legal system does an "open access" approach aim to fix?

Our legal system and our laws are amazingly complex.The last thing we need is to make it even harder by keeping our laws trapped in expensive books with bad indexes. [Note: Bound copies of the 21-volume Oregon's Revised Statues set are, for example, priced at $390.] Copyright has been used in the past as a tool to encourage people to produce legal materials. It was a reasonable strategy when publication was harder and more expensive, but it always required the courts to keep a very close eye to make sure people didn't overreach and use copyright as a weapon to make law unaccessible. Now, again with the help of the Internet, we can pare copyright in legal materials back further, so there's less risk in the first place that it'll be used to obstruct access to law.

How does open access law work? What's the road map for getting from where we are to a future where the law is more accessible?

Step one, which we've mostly got, is to make sure that anything legally binding is actually printed and distributed, at least to government reading rooms and libraries. Step two is to put those collections online. That's happening, but we're not there yet. Step three is to clean them up -- to put them in standard formats that are easier for search engines and other software tools to understand. And step four is to create big repositories, better search engines, better browsers, and other tools to make it easier to look things up.

How has the Internet changed things?

Pre-Internet, publishing and distributing law books was expensive. The executive branch alone puts out over 70,000 pages of law a year. An annual subscription to the Federal Register will run you almost $1,000 -- and they're just covering the raw printing costs. Ordinary citizens can't afford that, which means going to a library if you want to look up a single point of law somewhere in there. With the Internet, the Government Printing Office puts the whole thing online, updated daily, and you can consult it for free in seconds.

Plus, all sorts of great applications and tools are really only feasible online. What if you could click on a legal clause and it would change into a diagram showing you how the words fit together? Jump straight from any law to the most recent court decision on it? Compare the same issue across all 50 states automatically?

That's what happens when you turn loose the raw materials of law and let people combine, remix, and analyze them.

Where does your work fit into the greater (and growing) movement to make institutions from government to academia more transparent?

It's all part of the same set of efforts. Ultimately, the open access drive is the same: take advantage of the Internet to really achieve that potential while answering people's concerns. Open access is a way of looking at the world that just fills you with a sense of infinitely-renewable optimism. And generosity. And wonder.

Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer, blogger, and editor who focuses on the place where technology meets culture. She's worked in the past on Capitol Hill, in presidential politics, and in progressive radio.

Photo courtesy of James Grimmelmann

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While having that many laws become accessible to citizens certainly helps, I have to wonder about a system of governance that outputs that many legal documents.

70,000 pages of law every year: no one can hope to keep up, including those that create the laws.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 14 Oct 08

to change world world people shuld be create peace and toleret each other.

Posted by: yemker belay on 15 Oct 08

Cheers to James Grimmellemann! I think making law more accessible to the people is a fantastically admirable undertaking. The sacrifice of time everyone gives to these 'Open'information projects really inspires hope and instills faith in humanity. One question... Is James planning on doing anything make the laws easier to understand for the common person. Like translating them into layman terms or offering links to definitions of legal terms so that they may be understood by the 'average' individual?

Posted by: coconutfarmer on 16 Oct 08



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