Steve Schultze and I don’t agree about network neutrality regulation, but he and Shubham Mukherjee recently gave a fantastic talk on public access to court records. By law, federal court proceedings are not subject to copyright protection. However, the federal courts have a byzantine web-based reporting system called PACER that offers 1990s-era search functionality and charges eight cents per page for access to court documents. Astonishingly, this includes search results. Run a search on PACER that turns up no results, and the federal judiciary will charge you eight cents for the privilege of learning that your search returned no results. Run a search on PACER that turns up a lot of results and you get charged as much as $2.40 for a single search. The system has no keyword search, and there isn’t a single, integrated PACER system: each district and circuit court maintains its own records, and so you must already know which court’s PACER web site to visit before you conduct your search.
The system generates about $60 million per year in revenues for the court system, at an incalculable cost to the rest of us. Access to these documents is essential to understanding the laws that govern us. They are not subject to copyright, and they should be made as widely and cheaply available as technically feasible. Twenty years ago, PACER was a great step forward when it was first implemented more than a decade ago, but it’s now painfully behind the times. Steve and Shubham are working on a paper on this topic, and I’m looking forward to reading it.