Ever wonder why someone who is in the business of selling court opinions would want to support a project that is devoted to giving them away for free? I have the answer to that question from Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase.

As I wrote here earlier today, beginning in January, Fastcase will collaborate with Public.Resource.Gov to launch the Report of Current Opinions, a weekly release of all federal and state appellate opinions available for anyone to use without restriction. Fastcase will provide the opinions that RECOP will use for its weekly releases.

So why would Fastcase, which operates a paid legal research service, give away these very-same cases? And these are not raw cases — they are cases that Fastcase collects from hundreds of different sources in any number of different formats and file types and then harmonizes into a uniform format.

“The courts have created a modern-day Tower of Babel, with hundreds of different formats, standards, and file types,” says Walters.” To make the law understandable and useful, Fastcase harmonizes these opinions into a single standard for our own site. Today, we’re sharing that work with the world.”

The reason his company is doing this, Walters says, is because it believes that competition in legal publishing should be based not on who owns the data but on who provides the best features, services and prices.

“For too long, the dynamics of this market have been driven by access, but the services legal publishers offer haven’t gotten much better,” Walters says. “The more public you make the law, the more the competition has to be about the quality of the service, the innovativeness of the service, and the price of the service.”

Walters acknowledges that by releasing this data, he will be encouraging the development of new competitors, both commercial and non-commercial. (The now-shuttered Alt-Law project is an example of the latter.)  That, he believes, is a good thing.

“For West and Lexis, this is their AOL moment — they can’t make this fight about access anymore,” he says. “We want the fight to be about who delivers the best service, who is the most nimble, and who delivers the best value.”

Needless to say, Walters believes that is a fight that Fastcase would win. “We’re going to continue to make Fastcase better and better.”

More Details about RECOP

RECOP will include all federal and state supreme and appellate opinions issued beginning Jan. 1, 2011. The first feed of cases will be released on Friday, Jan. 14, covering cases issued the week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 7, Walters says. A new feed will be released every Friday thereafter, covering the prior week’s opinions.

The number of cases to be released is staggering. Walters estimates that there are some 10,000 appellate opinions a week, meaning RECOP will put out roughly a half-million opinions every year.

As I mentioned in my prior post, a number of commercial and non-commercial entities — all involved in the Law.gov project — will help make this happen, helping to prepare the cases for release each week.

Also as I mentioned in the earlier post, the backers of this project plan to operate it for only two years, after which they hope the government (or governments) will pick it up. Walters is hopeful that will happen. “I will be very surprised if the government doesn’t do it,” he says.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.