The movement for free access to law

By Melanie Dunshee, Assistant Dean for Library Services, Duke Law School

It is amazing to see how quickly the annual Open Access event has evolved from a one-day student event led by Students for Free Culture in 2007 to the global International Open Access Week organized by SPARC.   While the OA movement has its roots in the sciences, open access to legal materials is also a growing movement grounded on principles that open access to legal information promotes justice, transparency in government, and the rule of law.  Projects involving both primary legal materials and interpretative materials, particularly journals of legal scholarship, are growing all over the world.

Primary Legal Materials

Open access for legal materials often focuses on “primary” legal materials, such as legislation, regulations, court opinions, and treaties.  Governments have responded to advocates and interested groups to improve access to some of these materials in recent years, for example GPO’s Federal Digital System.  Open access advocates also argue for the right of non-governmental organizations, particularly non-profit groups, to have access to these materials so that they can develop systems to maximize discovery and distribution, and provide opportunities to use legal materials in new ways and across jurisdictional boundaries. Authentication and preservation of legal materials in electronic formats present critical and complex issues to solve in order that users of the information can rely on it.   Below are just a few examples of projects in this area.

– The World Legal Information Institute is an international leader in this area promoting free access to legal information and, more importantly, creating search and discovery systems to access materials made available by regional and national legal information institutes in a unified system.

Law.Gov describes itself as “A Proposed Distributed Repository of All Primary Legal Materials of the United States” and has recently conducted workshops around the country to promote its ideas and examine the issues involved.

Legal Information Institute (LII) housed at Cornell Law School has been providing access to legal information since the early 1990’s . “We are a not-for-profit organization that believes everyone should be able to read and understand the laws that govern them, without cost. We carry out this vision by:  Publishing law online, for free; Creating materials that help people understand law; Exploring new technologies that make it easier for people to find the law.”

American Association of Law Libraries ELIACC This committee has been working on various projects particularly regarding state legal materials, and is currently drafting a uniform law that would serve as a model for adoption in all states, the Authentication and Preservation of State Electronic Legal Materials Act.

Legal Scholarship

Providing open access to interpretive materials about the law is in many ways similar to other disciplines, with scholarly articles as the predominant form of legal scholarship in the United States.  For instance, many law schools are using repositories to collect and provide open access to law school publications and faculty scholarship, including Duke Law Scholarship Repository launched in 2005.  However, the publication system for journals in law is quite different than other disciplines consisting primarily of student-edited journals published by law schools, making the incentives and barriers for OA somewhat different. You might think that law school published journals would be more likely to adopt OA models, but this has not yet generally been the case.

Duke Law School has been a leader in electronic publication of legal scholarship and active promotion of open access to legal information. In 1998, Duke Law made the full content of articles published in its student-edited journals freely available on the law school’s web site. The journal editorial boards were early adopters of the Open Access Law Journal Principles with a commitment to practices of free, neutral access, and requiring minimal licensing rights so that authors control further dissemination of their works.

The Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship calls for US law schools to stop publishing their journals in print format and to rely instead on electronic publication with a commitment to keep the electronic versions available in stable, open, digital formats. A workshop at Duke Law School exploring issues and best practices for law journals to consider as they move into electronic publishing entitled Implementing the Durham Statement: Best Practices for Open Access Law Journals is scheduled during Open Access Week on October 22.