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Firefox Plugin Liberates Paywalled Court Records

kdawson posted more than 5 years ago | from the free-as-in-beer dept.

The Almighty Buck 145

Timothy B. Lee writes "If you want to access federal court records, you're often forced to use PACER, a cumbersome, paywalled Web site run by the federal judiciary. My colleagues and I at Princeton's Center for IT Policy have released a new Firefox extension called RECAP that allows users to automatically upload the documents they download from PACER into a public archive hosted by the Internet Archive. It also saves users money by automatically notifying them if a document they're searching for is available for free from the public archive. Over time, we hope to build a comprehensive, free repository of federal court records that's available to everyone."

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On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits! (5, Informative)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064379)

What's also interesting about this plugin is that the site it uploads them to, public.resource.org, also runs audits and its CEO, Carl Malamud, sends that audit data back to the Clerk of the Court [scribd.com] . The last page of that letter has transgressions by presiding judge!

Example:

Perhaps most shocking are items such as the list submitted by D.C. Attorney Ronald L. Drake who decided he wasn't being paid on time by the D.C. schools and thus raised his rates retroactively from $390/hour to $425/hour, submitting as evidence the names, home addresses, ages and social security numbers of 67 children.

I hope every judge in the District of Columbia knows about that. What's even more humorous is that Carl Malamud includes a hyperlink [findlaw.com] in that letter to FindLaw in case you wish to contact Mr. Drake.

And the response informs Malamud that it's taken care of [scribd.com] with the SSNs redacted and the documents removed from public display. I wonder how long public.resource.org and Scribd have to demonstrate their usefulness before federal court documents are uploaded there by default in addition to being available through the court?

On a related note, I read in a Google blog [blogspot.com] that you can now release your works under Creative Commons on books.google.com and they happen to have Carl Malamud's A World's Fair for the Global Village [google.com] available for download. And if you wish to release your works under the Creative Commons, Google will host them.

Re:On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits (1)

megamerican (1073936) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065275)

This is wonderful news. Now I can save $2.40 on my various sexual harassment lawsuits.

Re:On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits (3, Informative)

Jurily (900488) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065463)

This is wonderful news. Now I can save $2.40 on my various sexual harassment lawsuits.

It's not the amount that matters here, it's the principle. Public records should be public, and by that I mean freely available and easily searchable. And "easily searchable" is actually an intrenational standard in the age of Google.

Re:On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits (2, Insightful)

poetmatt (793785) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065815)

The thing is, pacer records are intended to be public and supposed to be free. Lieberman has asked about this before [arstechnica.com] . The creation of documents online was supposed to make them free eventually, specifically.

Re:On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065371)

hese sort of redaction failures are important to know about; however, Malamud's letter to the clerk of court betrays a severe deficiency in his understanding of the courts and how they work. The Clerk of Court cannot redact filings. It just does not work that way. Filers must (and are required to) redact filings. The Clerk of Court must also accept any filing. S/he can't turn it away because of a defect in form or substance. The most the clerk can do is notify chambers (the judge) of the issue. The judge can then order the filing sealed as well as a redacted filing from the originator of the document.

In addition, contrary to everything you are reading in this thread, court opinions are free on PACER. Anything that sets forth the reasoned opinion of the court is not charged. Most PACER fees come from people reading mundane scheduling orders and routine motions made by counsel. Yes -- these should be (and are) available to the public. They are even free if you visit the courthouse -- but the system that runs them did not appear out of thin air. PACER fees *do not* pay staff salaries or local court operational costs. They are used to maintain the infrastructure and development of the Case Management and Electronic Case Files system. That infratructure is complex and the software systems used to run and maintain the systems is under constant development to handle new requirements -- be they legal requirements or operational requirements.

The biggest problem with Malamud's project (and this plugin) is not the archival of public documents. I don't think anyone has a problem with that. The biggest problem is that it is woefully incomplete and someone might be under the mistaken impression that their project is anywhere near what Malamud claims it is. Their "vast repository' of documents contains fewer that 20% of the number of filings in one medium to large court out of 96 district courts (let alone Bankruptcy courts, which have much higher volume). The amount of actual data available from PACER dwarfs their available resources and is growing at a geometric pace compared to their relatively static growth. Take a look at their repository [resource.org] and just imagine how much has changed since this small slice of the whole pie was carved out. There is no way a few public users can keep up with hundreds of attorneys filing thousands of documents each day in all these courts. It cannot be done that way -- and they should make it clear that this is resource is nothing more than a tiny window on the whole.

Re:On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits (3, Insightful)

thejynxed (831517) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065589)

There is no way a few public users can keep up with hundreds of attorneys filing thousands of documents each day in all these courts.

And that right there, is a very sad fact that should never have been allowed to exist.

Re:On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits (2, Interesting)

Diacritic (791165) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065801)

So we should stop allowing people to file documents with the courts? Or should we stop allowing documents to be available for public use? Which "fact" are you referring to?

Re:On Top of That, public.resource.org Runs Audits (1)

shentino (1139071) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066301)

I would rather eliminate the res judicata that forces attorneys to unload a full larder of motions at trial just to make sure nothing gets locked out at appeal.

Aren't they available through FOIA? (3, Interesting)

guruevi (827432) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064387)

I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (4, Interesting)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064469)

I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

They probably are, but FOIA is a long and timely process. Surely for court documents that do not require any review before release, there could be an easier way? From PACER's FAQ [uscourts.gov] :

Why are there user fees for PACER?
In 1988, the Judiciary sought funding through the appropriation process to establish the capability to provide electronic public access services. Rather than appropriating additional funds for this purpose, Congress specifically directed the Judiciary to fund that initiative through the collection of user fees. As a result, the program relies exclusively on fee revenue.

The fee is eight cents per page you wish to view. While I don't agree with this now, I could maybe see how in 1988 this nominal fee would be needed for the transfer of this data. Today, bandwidth is cheap for documents. Bring on the Firefox extension and public.resource.org hosting! I think they should allow a bidding contract with "free" being the only option ... I'm guessing Google and Scribd and many others could make enough off the ads to host everything without blinking an eye. Hell, Google's doing it for patents, why not federal court documents?

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (2, Insightful)

BadAnalogyGuy (945258) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064747)

It's not just for bandwidth, but for the total maintenance of the system.

If you read deeper, there is a cap on fees per case of $2.40, so (using their example) if a case has 50 pages of documents, you would only need to pay $2.40 instead of the full $4.00.

I'm sure they would love someone to take this responsibility off their hands. Here's their FAQ for usage:

What are the acceptable uses of the data obtained from the PACER system?
The PACER system provides electronic access to case information from federal courts across the United States. The information gathered from the PACER system is a matter of public record and may be reproduced without permission. However, the PACER customer assumes all responsibility for consequences that arise from use of the data.

There are only a handful of things that the government should be involved in. This is definitely one of them.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (4, Insightful)

AndrewNeo (979708) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064815)

I think it makes sense. Instead of spending tax dollars on something very few people (in contrast to the total number of taxpayers,) it's paid with by a per-use fee. If anything there's probably more tax-paid government services that could be handled this way.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (4, Informative)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065023)

I think it makes sense. Instead of spending tax dollars on something very few people (in contrast to the total number of taxpayers,) it's paid with by a per-use fee. If anything there's probably more tax-paid government services that could be handled this way.

You are correct. But I think you're overlooking people that would benefit from this. People like you and I that might be good with Google and interested in generic Federal Court history, Academics looking to study it and so forth.

Check out this Ars Technica article from April entitled "The case against PACER: tearing down the courts' paywall" [arstechnica.com] , it says:

An important obstacle to improving PACER is the court's myopic focus on the system's current users. A recent article in the federal courts' internal newsletter promised to "survey the courts, litigants, attorneys, the media, and bulk data collectors-the people who use PACER." Conspicuously absent from the list are academics, non-profit organizations, and members of the general public: groups that would benefit from a more open PACER but which are discouraged from participating by the paywall and primitive search tools.

While I agree that at first glance a select few need this service, I also recognize that there are a select few who would benefit greatly from removing the paywall. Now, we can't come up with cold hard numbers to monetarily weigh one group against the other and optimize our tax dollars. But we can all use tools like this Firefox extension to satisfy the tax payers and help out the academics and curious general public.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (1)

timeOday (582209) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066263)

Court records are not something that should be more available to those with money. The goal here is justice that is blind to wealth. I know that's kind of preposterous, but we should be taking steps towards that goal wherever we can. Putting these records online would be a minuscule public burden; most of what they do collect probably goes to transaction overhead anyways. Like when you pay $3 to get into a state park and most of it goes to the person standing there collecting the $3.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065003)

Bandwidth is cheap, servers still cost. You might be able to get a free OS but the hardware and people to maintain it and upload new content isn't. Google is different since they are a search engine with ads and everything else is value added to their service. The court could do ads but unless they were directly selling the ads (and marketing something like that could be a legal issue) they would only be getting a fraction of the proceeds (aka if they put up adwords google collects the lions share and gives them a certain percentage)

Honestly their system seems like a perfectly legitimate way to sell unique content you can't get anywhere else unlike what some newspaper vendors are trying to do.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (2, Insightful)

ShieldW0lf (601553) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065523)

I'm guessing Google and Scribd and many others could make enough off the ads to host everything without blinking an eye.

Why does everyone acknowledge that people are willing to pay a lot of money for propaganda, yet not make the connection that this propaganda is so effective at leading people astray that they'll pay a lot of money for it and recognize that inducing people to mindless behavior has a social cost of it's own? When you run an effective ad campaign and manipulate people behavior, it's basically induced insanity. It ought to be a criminal act.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29066367)

Two months [slashdot.org] and still not a shred of evidence offered.

You will continue to be reminded. You will continue to be exposed. You will continue to fail utterly at pretending that you are not being humiliated.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (2, Interesting)

Pfhool (744) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066769)

I don't understand why there is a paywall in the first place. I thought all government records should be available for free through a FOIA request.

They probably are, but FOIA is a long and timely process.

FOIA only applies to the executive branch.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (2, Informative)

Kidro (1283296) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064831)

FOIA allows for the charging of fees to process requests.

From http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/87466.pdf [state.gov]
"Will I be charged for making a FOIA request?
The Department of State is entitled to charge a fee to recover the costs of document search, duplication and, in commercial cases, review. Under certain conditions, documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge."

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (1)

Mister Whirly (964219) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065335)

They are free as in Freedom of Information Act but not free as in beer.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (1)

Col. Klink (retired) (11632) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064913)

FOIA requests can charge for the resources needed to comply with them.

Re:Aren't they available through FOIA? (1)

ffflala (793437) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065877)

FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act, not the Free-as-in-free-beer of Information Act.

Processing court documents requires clerks and hardware, and that costs money. It will either be use fees or taxes; take your pick.

The government charge is ridiculous. (1)

FlyingSquidStudios (1031284) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064397)

I can sort of understand when the government charges for something that takes human effort. For example, patent and copyright searches through records which have not been digitized. They are simply covering extra labor costs which can be very time consuming- but when it's all online anyway, how dare they charge us for it?

Re:The government charge is ridiculous. (2, Insightful)

$RANDOMLUSER (804576) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064497)

The court papers scanned, organized and posted themselves.

Re:The government charge is ridiculous. (3, Interesting)

FlyingSquidStudios (1031284) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064551)

If they are scanning all of them as part of procedure, then there should be no extra charge for referencing them later.

Re:The government charge is ridiculous. (1)

nomadic (141991) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064663)

It's not generally scanned by the court, the parties file their documents with the court by uploading them to a related system, CM/ECF. I think the charges are more for the cost of hosting. Searches are free, and downloading documents costs about 8 cents a page, which I don't think is unreasonable.

why is PACER even allowed to charge? (4, Insightful)

Shakrai (717556) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064407)

I had to get a PACER account when I filed bankruptcy, so that I could monitor my case and download the documents related to it. It's ridiculous how it works -- they charge you $0.03 for every page that you download. It's like going to the local library and paying to use the copy machine, except in this case it's completely electronic and costs them no consumables. Why are they allowed to charge so much for access to the public record? It seems like a reasonable amount to ask if you went to the local court house and started printing hard copies but $0.03/page for a PDF document? Really?

Kudos to the people who came up with this idea. Now if we only had a free way to search case law. You can access the current Federal and State statues from the relevant Government websites but you have no easy way to do the same for case law, which is at least as important under our legal system. Most of the services to do this are paid ones (Lexis Nexis), I've yet to come across a decent free one.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29064441)

Bankruptcy? Ha ha, you're broke!

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29064617)

Wait, court maintain the records on servers, pays people to take care of them and maintain them, have people to imagine or record the files at windows or over the internet...then why should not court charge for documents? You think people who work at the court should not get paid? Just because that information is free to view, does not mean you should not pay for it to obtain.

  You buy books and CDs that have long expired trademarks for money because someone put them together. You pay to receive your driving records, reprints of your tax forms, and for using libraries. Why all of a sudden you think you should not pay for all the machinery put in place so you can get easy access to the billions of documents in court system? Do you think magic gnomes work for morning dew work there?

  TINSTAFRL
  (There is no such thing as free lunch.)

  p.s. Also people who can not pay, and with prove, can have fee waivers. So the system is designed in such a way that people who can pay -pay, people who can not, still have access. That ensures fairness of access to people who have no monetary ability. It is not perfect, but such system pays for its usage of the court system - besides filing fees, which work the same way.

  ALL THOSE DOCUMENTS ARE PUBLIC RECORDS AND YOU CAN VIEW THEM, FREE OF CHARGE, AT THE COURTS!

God forbids that Courts would charge people to implement new technology for peoples convenience.

  Also, such programs undermines from those who have no fancy computers and IT knowledge, but who actually require the most help. The truly needy, who really need access to courts operations will suffer with lost revenue. Yes, don't pay for documents online, obviously because only you should get paid for your work. All those those computers are ran by magical gnomes.

 

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (2, Informative)

mariushm (1022195) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064781)

Once the document has been scanned and introduced in the system, it costs almost nothing to distribute it.

You have almost fixed costs each month on people producing the documents, bandwidth, datacenter colocation, and some additional small costs on maintenance so a fee of 3 cents per page is not justified, especially if a document can get to hundreds of pages. You already run the system for years now, so you should know from statistics how many pages are read or how many documents are transferred and you should especially know how much it costs you overall so they could implement something like 50 cents / 1$ per document and still cover their yearly costs plus a very small profit.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

stupid_is (716292) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065213)

TINSTAFRL (There is no such thing as free lunch.)

Way to mangle TANSTAAFL [wikipedia.org] :-)

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (3, Insightful)

rickyars (619739) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064637)

I agree that stuff like this should be free since it is, after all, subsidized by our tax dollars.

But you're mistaken if you think it costs them nothing to make available to you these electronic documents. They have to (1) buy and maintain servers and storage, (2) pay the people to install and maintain that hardware, and (3) pay for electricity and cooling.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29064755)

And you're wrong if you think that it's subsidized by your tax dollars:

From PACER's FAQ [uscourts.gov]:

Why are there user fees for PACER?
In 1988, the Judiciary sought funding through the appropriation process to establish the capability to provide electronic public access services. Rather than appropriating additional funds for this purpose, Congress specifically directed the Judiciary to fund that initiative through the collection of user fees. As a result, the program relies exclusively on fee revenue

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (2, Interesting)

Shakrai (717556) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065115)

But you're mistaken if you think it costs them nothing to make available to you these electronic documents

What makes you assume that I think it costs them nothing? It obviously costs them something. I just question whether or not it costs so much that they need to charge $0.03/page for a PDF document.

They have to (1) buy and maintain servers and storage, (2) pay the people to install and maintain that hardware, and (3) pay for electricity and cooling.

They'd have to do all that anyway. The courts would still be keeping these documents even if PACER wasn't around to make the easily available to the public. So the question is how much extra does having the PACER functionality cost?

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064705)

How much it costs to scan the documents and host it in the servers? They should probably charge 3 cents a page to the first buyer and then reduce it to one cent for the second, to 0.1 cent for the third buyer and then zero for all subsequent buyers.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (2, Interesting)

blueg3 (192743) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065045)

It actually makes more sense to always charge the same amount for a page, and choose a fee such that you manage to cover your costs.

The real problem is that to most incensed Libertarians assume the marginal cost should be the total cost. Apparently overhead does not exist.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29066213)

Apparently overhead does not exist.

I do not know the USA court system, but in a democracy, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. To that end, the court must keep documents and those documents must be publicly available.

In the 21st century, I would hope and expect that the maintenance of the court records is already digital, because if done correctly, digital records are more robust and cheaper than keeping paper or microfiche records.

That means that the marginal cost of providing web access is the total cost of providing web access. And the marginal cost of web access to an on-line database is the cost of the web server hardware, the marginal cost of administering the web server (which is (or ought to be) minimal), the cost of the software to provide the web access (free solutions exist), the cost of installing and customizing the web access software (which is a known problem with known solutions, hence (relatively) inexpensive), and the cost of monthly bandwidth. That is (or ought to be) pocket change compared to the sunk costs of maintaining the court records in the first place.

Given the high value that a democracy ought to be placing on the transparency of its justice system, don't you feel that the (relatively) small cost of providing web access ought to be included in the cost of maintaining the records?

(And no, I am not a libertarian.)

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

nomadic (141991) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064855)

Kudos to the people who came up with this idea. Now if we only had a free way to search case law. You can access the current Federal and State statues from the relevant Government websites but you have no easy way to do the same for case law, which is at least as important under our legal system. Most of the services to do this are paid ones (Lexis Nexis), I've yet to come across a decent free one.

Try Google.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065163)

Supreme Court cases are available for free on FindLaw; recent decisions not yet on FindLaw are available on the Supreme Court's website. Your local library also probably has recent editions of all the Federal reporters.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

cfulmer (3166) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065343)

3 cents is a lot? They have to pay for the servers, the electricity and the people who run these systems. Sure, the marginal cost for accessing documents is negligible, but there is a significant fixed cost that has to be made up for somewhere. And, parts of it--largely the opinions--are free.

As far as free ways to search case law, check out findlaw.com, lexisone.com, the websites for the courts themselves, archive.org, etc... Or, you can do what lawyers have done for centuries -- find a law library and look through the hardcopy. Assembling and storing all that information is a non-trivial task and, so far, nobody is willing to do it for free.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

wrecked (681366) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065633)

Kudos to the people who came up with this idea. Now if we only had a free way to search case law.

For Canadians, you can use CanLii [canlii.org] (Canadian Legal Information Institute) to research case law for free. The courts and tribunals in most provinces post their decisions online, as well. In British Columbia, the courts have been uploading their decisions to their website [gov.bc.ca] since 1996.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

ffflala (793437) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065711)

The fee structure is outdated now, but it made sense at the time PACER was first implemented as a cost-offsetting measure. These records are public, but the required labor and overhead must be accounted for. It's either use a per-use fee, or a dip into tax revenue.

The initial fee in $1 per minute in 1990. By 1996 it was down to 75Â per minute; in 1997 it moved to 7Â per page. http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/documents/epachron.pdf [uscourts.gov] Now PACER's revenue generates a lot more than its administrative costs, by $150 million last year, according to NYT reporter John Schwartz. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PACER_(law) [wikipedia.org]

The excess is supposedly used for court IT. It appears that their current focus is understandably on ECF, while non-court uses for court-generated material (any other public use, essentially) is deprioritized. While I applaud the increased public access, I hope Recap doesn't make too much of a dent on the excess PACER revenue. The US Courts IT budget is underfunded enough as it is.

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

Beyond_GoodandEvil (769135) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065827)

As someone who worked with court records esp. bankruptcy records in the late 90's - early 00's be thankful for the PACER of today. I still have nightmares about connecting to the OK City bankruptcy court through a Citrix client to check proof of claims filings. Or using PCAnywhere to connect to Trustee data(shudder).

Re:why is PACER even allowed to charge? (1)

shentino (1139071) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066339)

Electricity is something I'd consider consumable...

This will turn out well (3, Funny)

vrmlguy (120854) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064413)

Because subverting the will of the judiciary always turns out well.

Re:This will turn out well (3, Informative)

DrgnDancer (137700) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064791)

They aren't "subverting the will of the judiciary". The judiciary isn't charging thousands of dollars a month and making a huge profit off of this. They're charging a few cents a page to cover the expense of keeping the program running. If someone else can and will store the same documents for free, it's less load for them to deal with. These are all public record documents that you could see for free if you went down to the courthouse and asked for them (though they'd probably charge you for copies, to cover those costs), it's not like these guys are breaking into the courthouse systems and raping and pillaging the information. It's public domain stuff, being stored in the public domain.

Re:This will turn out well (1)

sukotto (122876) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065789)

Bureaucracies are all react pretty much the same when faced with something that threatens their funding. They do what they can to kill the threat.

The fact that this is supposed to be public information is insignificant next to desire to protect funding.

Nice job... (1)

$RANDOMLUSER (804576) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064427)

Bypassing one of the few Federal programs designed to pay for itself [uscourts.gov] via fees from people who can afford to pay them.

Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (2, Insightful)

JSBiff (87824) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064555)

I'm a US citizen and pay thousands of dollars a year in Federal taxes. Why should I pay *more* to access public court documents from the Federal courts? If the issue is the costs of hosting the documents on servers, this project, by its mere existence, shows that there are people who will gladly shoulder the cost of hosting the documents, so others can access them for free. If the issue is the cost of having people redact documents where necessary, and scan them in (in the situations where the documents aren't electronic to begin with), that should just be part of the costs of court clerks, which our tax dollars pay for *anyhow*.

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (3, Interesting)

wampus (1932) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064633)

So are user fees automatically bad everywhere? Toll roads, fuel taxes, school registration, and so on all fit the same criteria. You are paying tax to support *some* of it, but it seems fair to make the people who are actually using a service pay more.

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (1)

Chaos Incarnate (772793) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064759)

User fees and general tax money is automatically bad. Pick one or the other. (Preferably user fees.)

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065057)

User fees and general tax money is automatically bad. Pick one or the other. (Preferably user fees.)

Cable television subscriptions and commercial interruption is automatically bad. Pick one or the other. (Preferably subscriptions.)

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (1)

Chaos Incarnate (772793) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065383)

Actually, you have that the wrong way around—cable subscriptions are analogous to general tax money (since everybody who subscribes is subsidizing the 80% of the channels that they don't watch), while the commercials are funding the specific programs you watch.

And I would prefer a structure that would let me reward shows that I watch instead of propping up Food Network and Lifetime, personally. But until then, there's always streaming websites and DVD. :)

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (1)

wampus (1932) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065897)

Don't you blaspheme the Food Network! But yeah, Lifetime and all 6 of the ESPNs can go away. ESPN is directly responsible for about $8 of my cable bill, IIRC.

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066565)

Actually, you have that the wrong way around--cable subscriptions are analogous to general tax money (since everybody who subscribes is subsidizing the 80% of the channels that they don't watch), while the commercials are funding the specific programs you watch.

I was thinking of NBC (no subscription, lots of ads) vs. Showtime (high subscription, no ads). Users of Showtime pay the fee; all people who buy products advertised on NBC pay for NBC.

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (2, Insightful)

the phantom (107624) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065297)

You are so right. We should only pay user fees. Then we won't have to pay for the things we don't use. I know that, for me, personally, this would save a hell of a lot of money, seeing as I don't use the military, welfare, medicaid, medicare, or social security!

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (1)

Oewyn (1526739) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065405)

Like in Texas where they use public money to build a highway, and then sell it to company so that they can turn it into a toll road.

If you want to make a toll road fine, but it shouldn't be publicly funded. Sell bonds if you need to raise funds for its construction.

If you want to make a road using public funds, it should be FREE to drive on. None of this double dipping shit.

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (2, Informative)

kyofunikushimi (769712) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065333)

Within reason, of course:

"In 2006, the fund received $447.8 million, but they could only figure out what to do with $301.2 million, the so-called âoeobligated balance.â In other words, they had a âoesignificant unobligated balanceâ of $146.6 million. At 8 cents per page for a PACER Document, they could give away 1.8 billion pages of documents to the public and still have all the money they need to pay for their computers."

See question/answer #9 in the Recycling FAQ for a nice graph and a source of that quote: http://pacer.resource.org/recycling.html [resource.org]

I for one hate user fees... (1)

LeDopore (898286) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065503)

... especially tolls, which are often wildly inefficient. When I lived in the SF Bay area, I would often wait a good half hour to pay a $4.00 toll. With two people in the car whose time is worth $40/hr each, the cost in time of paying the toll is 10 X the actual toll.

Raise the gas tax a little to cover all tolls and I would be much happier!

Re:I for one hate user fees... (1)

31415926535897 (702314) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065757)

Tolls aren't solely about revenue generation, they can be about congestion control too. It actually sounds like the toll you pay is too cheap. It sounds like it needs to be $20.00, then you probably won't have to wait and you'll save 50% of your hourly wage.

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065573)

Arguably, there are category distinctions to be made within user fees.

For instance, you could say that certain things, like law enforcement and military defense, are simply inherent to the role of the state and are its necessary functions. Every member of the state is automatically a "user", so these are supported by taxation and not user fees(indeed, given the importance of impartiality in law, it might be desirable to positively forbid user fees in these areas).

Other things, like public education and medicaid, are not necessary aspects of the state(it is easy enough to imagine an otherwise ordinary state not doing them); but their existence enjoys fairly broad support within the democratic process and so user fees, if any, are heavily means tested and most support is from taxation.

Yet another category would be things like national parks, monuments, and similar. Like the above, these aren't intrinsic to the nature of the state; but they tend to enjoy fairly broad support. However, access to them isn't generally seen as an ethical/moral issue, so user fees(while often updated ridiculously slowly, and thus incredibly low) are not typically means tested.

The next category would be things like roads, water systems, and the like. These are natural monopolies(or, at best, natural oligopolies); but are not otherwise intrinsic to the state. Here, user fees are the rule, as more or less the best available substitute for market prices.

Another category of what might be called "user fees" are taxes specific to some commodity or class of commodities. These have either a social/moral justification(as with sin taxes) or are aimed at internalizing some externality(as with pollution tax schemes).

I'm not going to wade in to the fraught issue of exactly which user fees are or are not legitimate, and which state functions should or should not be subject to them; but I would definitely assert that user fees are in no way a homogenous category(either from an ethical perspective, from a socially pragmatic perspective, or from an economic perspective).

Re:Why should PUBLIC records be behind a paywall? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29066599)

Mandatory, unavoidable user fees are bad always, yes.

You can choose not to drive. I don't know anything about school registration, since they don't bill for any such thing where I am.

Even taxes are avoidable, if you decide to "live off the land" on government owned land.

But mandatory fees that you have no choice but to pay are wrong. If you are charged with a crime you need access to these things. If you need to prosecute someone because good sense and the law demands it, you need access to these things.

Even something as simple as deciding you don't want to break a law, and you don't know what case law surrounds it will require use of this service. Shouldn't the government be encouraging its citizens to be law abiding? As it stands, only those empowered with money can be, because those without money can't inform themselves. And that's wrong.

It's the same reason I argued my parking ticket on the basis that it's wrong I couldn't access the law I was charged with (I tried the library, I tried the police, I tried the courthouse clerks, I tried city hall: Only city hall had it, and it was a very out of date copy--they refused to dig through years of backlogged archiving to find me a copy dated for this century). How can I possibly follow a law (this one was a city-wide "no parking after XX:XX" law) I only know about through heresay (signs on a few entry roads)?

The judge agreed and required the crown to send me a copy of the relevant law I was charged under so I could defend myself at a later time. I ended up losing, but I made my point. The law should always be accessible to anyone, at all times.

Re:Nice job... (4, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064559)

Is making a fairly inexpensive program self supporting really more important than ensure citizen's access to the law? Really?

If so, I propose another initiative: "1-900-THE-COPS" is a new "991 Premium" service offering enhanced access to law enforcement for a modest fee...

Joking aside, there are plenty of areas where running government as lean as possible makes sense; but nickle-and-diming justice seems like a terrible plan.

Re:Nice job... (3, Funny)

HAKdragon (193605) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065209)

0118999881999119725...... 3

Re:Nice job... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065785)

The service is a convenience and nothing more. The alternative is you go to the courthouse and get the documents. So, if you live in NY and want to see a scheduling motion from CA, you can either fly to CA, wait til the courthouse is open, wait in line at the courthouse, wait for the document to be found, pay probably $0.10 a page to make a copy of the document, and fly back to NY; or you can pay $0.08 a page to get it off PACER. And, if you want the really important stuff (the opinions), they are free.

It should be paid for by the taxpayer. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29064645)

Bypassing one of the few Federal programs designed to pay for itself [uscourts.gov] via fees from people who can afford to pay them.

By that reasoning, they should charge $100 per page then? After all, the folks who access them can afford them, right?

These are court documents - something that should be monitored by the public. The same goes for any legislative actions. To charge for access is to restrict access - it adds a barrier to viewing them, just like FOIA, with all of it's hoops one has to jump through, restricts access in a way. Government needs to be transparent and these back hand ways of obfuscating what the system is doing does nothing in that regard. I am NOT saying that was what the intention of these charges were, I am saying that is the effect of said charges.

Re:Nice job... (1)

amplt1337 (707922) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064885)

I'd much rather federal programs paid for themselves through taxes, rather than restricting access to legal proceedings to those with money.

Any price-based barrier to entry is too great for the legal system.

Re:Nice job... (1)

fulldecent (598482) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065129)

and archive.org is designed to be a nonprofit

They are not "bypassing" the program. (5, Informative)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065409)

PACER gets its fee for every page downloaded from it. The material is public domain. You could go down to the courthouse, photograph the pages, and put them up on the Web without paying a penny. This project reduces the load on PACER in proportion to the reduction in PACER revenue. What's wrong with that? And why do you assume that only the rich need Federal court documents?

the i4i v. Microsoft court transcript? please (1)

H4x0r Jim Duggan (757476) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064443)

If someone could RECAP the court transcript of the recent i4i v. Microsoft case, that would be very useful.

http://en.swpat.org/wiki/I4i_v._Microsoft [swpat.org]

http://en.swpat.org/wiki/Talk:I4i_v._Microsoft [swpat.org]

Thanks.

Re:the i4i v. Microsoft court transcript? please (1)

bogaboga (793279) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064503)

Video of the proceedings would be like icing on the cake! Why don't we have publicly available video content of proceedings? Any hopes for this?

I'd prefer a transcript (1)

H4x0r Jim Duggan (757476) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064727)

You can't grep videos.

Re:I'd prefer a transcript (1)

AndrewNeo (979708) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064859)

I'm fairly certain Google is working on that!

Re:the i4i v. Microsoft court transcript? please (1)

kuroth (11147) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064843)

There is no video of Federal court proceedings, it's prohibited.

Then please allow me to rephrase (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065083)

There is no video of Federal court proceedings, it's prohibited.

In light of this, please allow me to rephrase bogaboga's comment:

Video of the proceedings would be like icing on the cake! Why has the law prohibiting video recording of Federal court proceedings not been repealed? Any hopes for this?

well (4, Informative)

nomadic (141991) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064611)

Speaking as a lawyer who spends an inordinate amount of time going through multiple PACER systems to download filings, this is good news, however it would probably take a few years for this to be useful for most lawyers. And outside the more prominent cases the chances are slim that someone else has used this to get a document you want.

And the interface itself isn't THAT cumbersome, though it could be slightly better (for example, it doesn't allow searching by judge, which is annoying when you're trying to see how the judge you're before ruled before). Also each district has its own independent PACER, which always seemed somewhat inefficient to me.

Re:well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065681)

Speaking as a lawyer who spends an inordinate amount of time going through multiple PACER systems to download filings, this is good news, however it would probably take a few years for this to be useful for most lawyers. And outside the more prominent cases the chances are slim that someone else has used this to get a document you want.

If I remember correctly, low-usage users aren't charged. (Off the top of my head, the "free" usage may be something like $10 per three months before a bill gets issued.) So a community effort with proper organization could try to download 100 pages per person per month; with a lot of such users, offloading all of PACER will take less time.

Sometimes throwing a million trained monkeys at a problem solves the issue. Seriously, if people are willing to click a button to generate game money, would they be willing to click several buttons to download and upload court documents?

IANAL (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29064701)

IANAL so I don't give a toss. IANAA either.

How to not understand the cost of PACER (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29064865)

Half the people here claim the cost of scanning the document, etc is why PACER charges.
This misses a very important point: This cost was already paid for when you submitted the document to the court.
Lawyers and others filing documents with the court costs money. A lot of money (relatively).

*This* money is used to pay for scanning/digitizing/etc the documents, as well as hosting them, so that people involved with the cases (as well as the court, etc) can access the documents electronically. In fact, plenty of courts now *require* electronic filing.

PACER charging on the other side to retrieve the document has absolutely nothing to do with the cost of digitizing, hosting, or anything else.
It's just money that goes to a slush fund for the federal judiciary (Carl Malamud has calculated how much money is there if you google for it), not money necessary to pay for the system.

Patience (3, Interesting)

Taylor123456789 (1354177) | more than 5 years ago | (#29064867)

As a lawyer who has used Pacer for many years, my first reaction was the same. Why am I paying for something with no marginal cost that should be free in the first place? However, look at the alternative: driving down to the courthouse and making physical photocopies at even greater expense.

I then learned that they are using the money to build their IT infrastructure to allow even better access. Of course, they will probably never remove the fees, but $.03 is really quite cheap compared to say, Lexis or Westlaw which charge about $100 per day to access their data without a subscription.

Right now, it is optional for lawyers (some courts even charge you to do it) to file electronic versions of your documents. Eventually, all lawyers will file electronic versions of their documents, and access will be better.

I support public.resource.org which is attempting to make all government laws free online.

The wheels of justice move slowly but surely.

Re:Patience (1)

freedomseven (967354) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065155)

Wow, no offense intended but it is evident that you are a lawyer. I don't mean that in a bad way but the nature of what you do requires you to think in terms of reasonable fees. As they say, this might be what your used to but it is amazing what you can get used to.

The fact we are used to the justice system moving slowly does not mean we should be tolerant of senseless foot dragging. If these guys can improve the system, then God bless them for putting forth the effort.

I would say that if the fees are so trivial, they should be shared by the original plaintiffs and defendants. If they choose to file in an archaic format then they should have to pay for the burden that they impose on the justice system.

Need this for JSTOR, etc. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065035)

When we have this for scientific journals, it may be important everyone in the world. As it is, litigation happy americans are the ones who benefit from this.

Re:Need this for JSTOR, etc. (1)

BurningRome (457767) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066427)

Yeah, I thought the exact same thing. A Firefox plugin that will detect when you download a PDF from some journal, and automagically upload the PDF to some open repository. That would be of immense use to scientists who don't have access to all the many expensive journals out there. Unfortunately, since almost all journals force authors of the papers to relinquish copyright to the journal, a open-access database of papers would copyright-infringing as hell. You'd have to host it some non-copyright-friendly country........
A great idea tho - I'd use it in a second! I download probably 50 papers a month from various paywall journals!

How do I verify Authenticity? (5, Interesting)

localman57 (1340533) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065077)

If the system relies on my uploading documents that I downloaded from the court, how does it authenticate the validity of those documents? Suppose I'm a patent troll lawyer. What's to keep me (aside from non-technical disciplinary stuff) from downloading documents that have unfavorable rulings to patet troll companies, then modifying them to make it look like the precident is different, and uploading them to RECAP? It seems like this could be a good way to derail the competition.

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065247)

Hopefully, the signatures and letterhead accompanying those documents and the penalties that (I'm sure?) will be incurred from fraudulently presenting them as valid documents will be enough to stop someone from modifying them. Regardless, an interesting question; well worth a better and more researched answer than this one.

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (3, Interesting)

Rydia (556444) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065477)

It's not really a concern or a problem. If you're relying upon a holding or an order from a court, your opponent is going to go and get their own copy of that order (sure, maybe they go to RECAP). They will notice that what you said doesn't match up with the official record and tell the judge. Heck, when you file a brief relying on the order, you're going to get stopped by the judge anyway because (at least in my experience), the judge is going to ignore everything except your overall argument regarding that opinion/order, and then just go and read the opinion/order himself (off PACER, since it doesn't cost the judge anything). At best, you didn't include any of the lying bits. At worst (say the local rules required you to attach the case to your filing), you're essentially lying to the court. Judges aren't big fans of this. Lawyers and judges are (generally) not idiots. The possibility of this scheme actually working is so incredibly remote that you'd have to be nuts to try it.

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (4, Insightful)

localman57 (1340533) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065627)

But you're assuming that I'm downloading the document to use specifically as-is, in the judicial system. What if I'm interested in reading, for instance, the i4i v. Microsoft case above for my own entertainment and education? What's to keep one party or the other from uploading a version of the document with stuff they don't like modified? It might not work in court, but it could confuse the public, or cause you to abandon one potentially valid avenue of research you might otherwise have pursued, had the document not been falsified. It's easy to see how this could appeal to people. Just look how many people put up false stuff on Wikipedia. Except in this case, the only way for me to refute what is in RECAP is to pay money to buy my own copy of the document from PACER.

Are you absolutely sure the RIAA or similar wouldn't potentially try to do this if a bad case came down against them? Once a falsehood starts circulating, it's very hard to kill.

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29065555)

If only there was some sort of system where they could distribute a sort of electronic "signature" along with files so that authenticity could be verified by anyone...

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29066029)

The only signature that would be of any value would be one put there by the court when the document is filed. So are you really suggesting that the court goes to the expense of signing every document (as well as the millions of documents out there) just so someone can avoid paying their fee? Yeah, that makes sense.

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (1)

Fastolfe (1470) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066125)

This would be trivial to automate. And really, if the fact that it's being downloaded from PACER is authentication enough, then all you really need to do is generate hashes of the documents, and serve them up (for free?) from PACER.

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (4, Insightful)

John Hasler (414242) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065567)

> What's to keep me (aside from non-technical disciplinary stuff) from
> downloading documents that have unfavorable rulings to patet troll companies,
> then modifying them to make it look like the precident is different, and
> uploading them to RECAP?

a) Lawyers will only use unofficial sources like RECAP for research. Material that they intend to use in court will be downloaded from PACER and thus you will be caught.

b) Judges have no reason not to use PACER for everything since they don't pay the fees and do need to be sure they are looking at official versions. Thus you will be caught again.

However, this will encourage lawyers on small budgets to do much more wide-ranging research, will allow penurious litigants to have access to court records, and allow the general public to more easily follow cases.

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (4, Insightful)

localman57 (1340533) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065663)

Lawyers will only use unofficial sources like RECAP for research.

Exactly! And that's why it's worth falsifying. If I can convince you, through your own research, that what you're trying to do against me has been proven not to work, then you'll give up. When in fact, perhaps your research would have shown that what you were trying to do in fact worked very well!

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (1)

xtracto (837672) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065955)

Mmm MD5?

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (1)

localman57 (1340533) | more than 5 years ago | (#29066045)

Sure. But who creates the hash?

Re:How do I verify Authenticity? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#29066679)

Big news: there are bogus documents on the internet.

What about donations (1)

tekproxy2 (1386447) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065131)

What about a donation system whereby one can pay to have the people running this download some documents? Three bucks would be three hundred documents. There could be options on which documents they'd like downloaded. What about a Make a Request section? They could even handle it like Miro handle's donations and put your name up when people see the document. "This document has been liberated by XXX." Maybe these aren't good ideas for various reasons and I just don't know enough to know why. Just throwing them out there.

Re:What about donations (1)

rickb928 (945187) | more than 5 years ago | (#29065579)

Three bucks would be 300 PAGES.

That might be 300 documents, or more likely as few as 1/3 of a document. How many single-page documents are commonly filed?

Of course, at ten bucks, you're getting warmer...

Perhaps this is the beginning of truly 'public' repositories. Or a way for not-for-profit journalism to survive, since they would benefit greatly from free or nearly-free documents. And shouldn't we also encourage public repositories of FOIA documents of all types? Oh, wait, don't many FOIA requesters already do that???

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