Today the New York Times reported that Harvard Law School announced that they were collaborating with Ravel Law to digitize over 44,000 volumes of US caselaw including state court reports predating the US Constitution. Their goal is to “Free the Law” and make all of the existing federal and state caselaw available and searchable to anyone for free. Ravel is an innovative tech

ouch! I can barely look… (c) Books Kraft

start-up which applies a unique search algorithm to caselaw research and delivers results in stunning visual displays. A companion product “Judges Analytics” provides “precedential analysis” of judges opinions which can help a lawyer understand which cases and language are support a “winning” argument.

Harvard has posted a fascinating and “spine tingling” (book lovers be warned) video  documenting the process on Youtube The video also includes interviews with Daniel Lewis Founder of Ravel Law and Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard Law Library Director and Law Professor.

I spoke with Daniel Lewis today regarding the project and several things surprised me.

  • This enterprise has not received any special funding from any foundations.
  • They will be scanning 44,000 volumes of caselaw and are currently 20% completed.
  • Librarians are adding metadata to the volumes as they are scanned.
    Ravel Founders Daniel Lewis and Nik Reed
  • The cases will be full text searchable but each case will also have a link to an image of the original document.
  • The complete archive of California cases will be complete in November.
  • New York cases will be added by the end of this year.
  • The remaining states will be added on a rolling basis with an expected completion date of 2017.
  • When I asked how this project differed from  the caselaw available on Google Scholar, Daniel pointed out that Google only covers cases back to 1950 and it makes no representation of completeness. The Ravel Harvard project is aiming for comprehensiveness and historical completeness.
  • Given the size and age of Harvard’s collection, I wouldn’t be surprised if the  project uncovers cases which are not currently included in any commercial database and which may be completely new to legal scholars.
  • They hope that states will accelerate and collaborate with them in increasing the availability of state primary source materials. In order to create an incentive for states, Ravel will give states complete access to the state’s historical  archive if the state makes its caselaw available in digital format.
  • The Ravel database will be free to the public. Commercial subscribers will get the Harvard materials as they are loaded and will continue to have access to advanced functionality such as Judges Analytics.
  • They will not make the database available to commercial publishers for eight years.

What about statutes? While there are no current plans to tackle statutes, Lewis hopes that the Free the law project will inspire state to start making their caselaw available in searchable digital formats. Once the caselaw project is completed, Lewis hopes that states will also add their statutes. Lewis would love to tackle loading  archives of state statutes.

Congratulations to Ravel and Harvard Law — awe-some project.