Harvard To ‘Free The Law’

Students at Harvard Law

Students at Harvard Law

Harvard Law Library Begins ‘Free The Law’ Project


No place, sans the Library of Congress, holds more law books and judicial decisions than Harvard Law School’s Library. Until 2017. That is when Harvard’s ‘Free The Law‘ project will be complete and the library’s entire collection will be scanned and online. Harvard librarians are currently slicing the spines off the library’s massive collection and scanning more than 40 million pages in total to create the largest online searchable database of American case law.

“Improving access to justice is a priority,” Harvard Law School Dean, Martha Minnow told the New York Times. “We feel an obligation and an opportunity here to open up our resources to the public,” she continued.

Indeed, many of these documents are already very much available to the public, but for a fee or by check-out only. Upon completion, virtually anyone with an internet connection will be able to access court decisions dating back to the colonial times. California-based startup, Revel Law is partnering with Harvard and spending millions to assist in the scanning process. Once complete, the documents will be available at www.revellaw.com. Entire state records for California and New York will be available as soon as this fall.

Revel Law CEO and co-founder Daniel Lewis told the New York Times the company will make money by charging for advanced features. For instance, lawyers will be able to look up “how a particular judge has responded to certain kinds of motions in the past.” However, a portion of the database will only be available to nonprofits and scholars for eight years and then will be made available to other commercial groups.

According to Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor and director of the Harvard Law Library, about a quarter of the collection has already been sliced and scanned. After slicing and scanning, Zittrain told the Times, the books are shrink-wrapped and “put … back in the depository for the apocalypse.”

Until now, many of these documents were available online for a fee through services like Westlaw or NexisLexis. Representatives from Westlaw told the Times they don’t expect any significant impact on their business from the project. Still, many law firms spend thousands to millions of dollars yearly on services like Westlaw. In this legal climate, it would not be a surprise to see many firms using this database instead. Even hiring someone just to search the database for court cases would likely save a firm money.

Either way, if knowledge truly is power, the world is about to become more powerful.