Liveblogging Steve Schultze: Access to Government Documents

October 14, 2008

Keeping with the Open Access theme of the day, Steve Schultze is talking about Open Access to Govt docs and the law today at the Berkman Center luncheon series.

At the moment, Steve’s giving us a guided tour of the ironically named PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system that federal and appelate courts use to archive their documents. The site has a search engine that charges you per query (!) and per page.

E-government in Action! (photo by Doctor John Smith cc-by-nc)

America's e-government in action! (photo by Doctor John Smith cc-by-nc)

It’s an absurdity given the fact that these documents are not copyrightable and that the intention of the folks who set this up was to provide legitimate public and open access to court documents. A classic case of high-minded goals and well-meaning government programs that need an overhaul.

As Steve points out, the courts face a serious challenge of cost recovery (all of this digitization and database archiving costs money), but in trying to resolve that issue with PACER, the judiciary has introduced obtuse barriers to entry and facilitated the rise of de-facto donwstream monopolies (folks re-archive and sell access to PACER documents on the web).

There’s got to be a way out, here. In the meantime, though, I’m going to sit back and enjoy Steve’s bar charts demonstrating how the cost recovery model currently employed by the federal judiciary is pretty much a crock.


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