The New York Times reports that Carl Malamud and his non-profit organization, Public.Resource.Org, have begun an ambitious campaign to make US court decisions available to the public for free online. According to its website, Public.Resource.Org seeks to create an "unencumbered public repository of federal and state case law and codes." To do this, Malamud will be scanning West Publishing's federal and state case reporters,"extracting the public domain content and republishing it on the Internet for use by anyone." Malamud has already started with West's Federal Supplement, Federal Reporter, and Federal Appendix. So far, only cases from the 1880s are up on the website.
Interestingly, Malamud has a successful history of challenging publishers and getting government information released to the public. In the 1990s, he spearheaded a campaign that led to the US government making records from the Securities and Exchange Commission (EDGAR) and the Patent and Trademark Office available to the public for free.
Lawyers have long anticipated a move of this kind because court decisions and statutes are not copyrightable. West Publishing and its primary competitor, LexisNexis, do not own the copyrights to the decisions that they publish in print or post to their subscription-based online services. Rather, the publishers own the copyrights only to the content that they add to the published opinions, such as syllabi (which summarize the general holding of each opinion), head notes (which summarize specific points of law discussed in each opinion), and "key numbers" (which categorize points of law into different legal topics and subtopics for research purposes). They also own the copyrights to the particular selection and arrangement of the opinions in their case reporter volumes. This is a relatively thin layer of copyrightable material -- it is fairly clear that a competitor or interested citizen could copy and distribute cases found in West's reporters, so long as the syllabi, head notes, and "key numbers" were redacted, and so long as the reproductions did not duplicate the West reporters' original selection and arrangement of cases. See, e.g., Matthew Bender & Co. v. West Publishing, 158 F.3d 674 (2d Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 526 U.S. 1154 (1999).