If you’re a lawyer, and you use the crazy-outmoded PACER system to access federal court documents, check out the new RECAP system launched today by Tim Lee, Harlan Yu, and Steve Schultze with the help of Princeton’s CITP. If you use PACER, you know it’s difficult to use. It also charges citizens to access what are nominally public documents, something that makes little sense online. This combination has resulted in a multi-million dollar surplus for the judiciary’s IT department, and lousy access to data that would be useful not just to lawyers and litigants, but to bloggers, librarians, reporters, and scholars.
Schultze, Lee, and Yu’s scheme to free the documents on PACER is an ingenious one. They have built a Firefox plugin called RECAP that attorneys and other regular users of PACER can install on their computers. When a user downloads a document from PACER, the plugin sends a copy to RECAP’s server, where it is made publicly available. If enough PACER users install RECAP, it will only be a matter of time before the entire database is liberated. Why would lawyers participate? When they search for a document, the plugin first checks the RECAP database to see if a copy has already been liberated. If it has, then the lawyer can retreive it without paying PACER. Like I said: ingenious.
I’m happy to see so many folks take up Carl Malamud’s mantle and not only liberate government data, but also provide competition to government. It’s the impetus behind my own OpenRegs.com. By demonstrating what’s possible, how the world won’t end when data is made freely available, we create demand for change in government. Three cheers for RECAP!