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8/23/2007
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Free Legal Search Engine AltLaw.org Challenges Fee-Based Competitors

The site offers access to about 170,000 decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and Federal Appellate courts going back to the early 1990s.

Altlaw.org, a new search engine for federal case law, debuted on Thursday, promising greater public access to other public, but nonetheless largely pay-per-view, online legal records.

"It's been more than 10 years since the start of the Internet revolution, and case law is one area that has not budged," said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, in a statement. "Somebody has to take the initiative. We want to open the law to the public."

Colorado Law School professor Paul Ohm co-created the site with Wu. He wrote the code that downloaded cases from over a dozen court Web sites nightly and did so with the intention that others would make use of the case law, even mash it up.

"The touchstone of AltLaw.org is openness, and this means that not only will users be able to search cases, but they'll also be able to make copies of all of the cases in our database to reuse or remix in any way that they'd like," said Ohm in a statement.

Though court documents are public records, two legal research services -- Westlaw and LexisNexis -- dominate the legal marketplace. Both services, owned by Thomson and Reed Elsevier respectively, provide access to court documents for a fee.

With the advent of Altlaw.org and public.resource.org, a related effort by author and Internet benefactor Carl Malamud, these legal industry incumbents face competition from open, free information services, just like other information industry market segments.

Altlaw.org provides access to about 170,000 decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and Federal Appellate courts going back to the early 1990s. Ohm and Wu expect the site's database will grow over time.

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