Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ravel and Harvard "Free the Law": You've Read the News, Now Watch The Movie: Spine-tingling Scenes of Libra-cide

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.


  1. Exciting news indeed, but what I found equally intriguing was that I (a seasoned and active law librarian) first learned about this by reading it in the New York Times, rather than through one of my professional organizations -- say AALL? Harvard & Ravel have obviously been at this for a fair amount of time already. I'm shocked that neither of them brought this to AALL's attention before it hit the mainstream media.

  2. In the video, I notice the conspicuous absence of books published by West -- books that are littered with copyrighted content. Are West case reporters not being scanned? If not, then they can certainly shoot for a complete collection of the cases found in non-copyrighted books in the Harvard Law Library. But that's hardly the same thing as a complete collection of American case law.

    1. According to Daniel Lewis, Ravel CEO, Harvard and Ravel have taken care to ensure that this project complies with copyright law. All the court decisions being made available online via this project are in the public domain.

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    3. I think you mean "redacting" copyrighted material -- with a "d" in the middle. And yes, that would make the ultimate product more complete if they could do that. But have Ravel and Harvard committed to doing that? It's not clear from what I've read or seen in their video.

  3. For some states, the only print reporters available are West publications. I looked up Oklahoma, since an Oklahoma Reports volume is featured in the video. That publication stopped being published in 1953. Since then, I believe the official source has been the Pacific Reporter, a West publication. If a West reporter is the only source for some states for some time periods, how could they possibly have a comprehensive database with page images? Perhaps they are aiming for a comprehensive database of full text with page images where available? Are they going to put in star pagination? These are the details we law librarians want to know about!

  4. I think we can safely assume that the Harvard librarians took copyright into account when they designed the workflow.. They have a method of redacting copyrighted material or maybe they got permission from TR. TR can only claim copyright in their headnotes and key numbers, not the opinions themselves. I jus don't see TR suing Harvard if a headnotesmdid slip through the filtering process. This is basically a public citizen initiative