See also this later post: Ravel Founder Daniel Lewis Discusses Today’s News of Partnership with Harvard to Digitize All Case Law.

Harvard Law School and Ravel Law today announced an initiative to digitize and make available to the public for free Harvard’s entire collection of U.S. case law, which it says is the most comprehensive and authoritative database of American law and cases available anywhere outside the Library of Congress.

The collection contains 40,000 books and 40 million pages of decisions from the federal courts and the courts of all 50 states, including original materials from cases that predate the U.S. Constitution.

The “Free the Law” initiative, as it is being called, will make these digitized materials available through the Ravel Law research platform. Ravel is providing millions of dollars to support the scanning project, according to the New York Times.

Case law for California jurisdictions will be online in November. The full collection of nationwide case law is expected to be digitized and searchable for free on Ravel Law by mid-2017. Harvard and Ravel have agreed to release the entire database for bulk use by anyone, including other commercial entities, within eight years.

“Libraries were founded as an engine for the democratization of knowledge, and the digitization of Harvard Law School’s collection of U.S. case law is a tremendous step forward in making legal information open and easily accessible to the public,” said Jonathan Zittrain, the George Bemis professor of international law at Harvard Law School and vice dean for library and information resources, in a press release issued this morning. “The materials in the library’s collection tell a story that goes back to the founding of America, and we’re proud to preserve and share that story.”

“We share with Harvard Law School a common belief that increasing access to our country’s legal records through technology will help make our legal system more transparent and just,” said Daniel Lewis, cofounder and CEO of Ravel Law, in the same press release. “By collaborating together on this digitization effort, we hope to provide the public with unique and powerful ways to find and understand the law.”

Update: After posting the above, I spoke to Jonathan Zittrain. He provided three other notes of interest:

  • For any jurisdiction that makes all of its law available online in a fully authoritative and citeable format, then all of the law from that jurisdiction that Harvard has scanned will come fully free and available online immediately, without having to wait the eight years. Currently, only two states qualify: Illinois and Arkansas.
  • Ravel will create an application programming interface (API) so that nonprofits can write apps and plug into the ecosystem of these cases, to create their own portals into the database.
  • The agreement with Ravel includes provisions by which researchers can obtain access to the full database.

He also said that nothing in the Harvard/Ravel agreement would prohibit Ravel from negotiating deals with other commercial entities to provide them access to this data prior to the expiration of the eight years.

The video below has more information.

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.