Tim O'Reilly and John Markoff have good writeups on public.resource.org, which aims among other things to create "an unencumbered repository of all [U.S.] federal and state case law and codes." In a letter to legal publisher Thomson/West, public.resource.org President and CEO Carl Malamud seeks clarity as to the extent of the copyrights the publisher will assert in these works. Thomson told John Markoff: "We have received the letter from Public Resource and Mr. Malamud raises a number of interesting but complex points. We are looking at them now and then will be in touch directly with Mr. Malamud."
It's expensive to hire a good lawyer, and big-ticket overhead items such as the high cost of commercial legal research databases have much to do with this. In his very rationally presented letter, Mr. Malamud attempts to assure Thomson that the market for its sophisticated commercial services is likely to grow, not shrink, as the source materials become more widely available. In the near term, he may be right. In the long term, when the successors of public.resource.org and Tim Wu's AltLaw ultimately make public case and statutory law searchable and cut-and-pasteable, and things like pagination morph into things like URIs, that's a wrap for services like Westlaw and Lexis. Unless they figure out ways to do it first, better, and for free — but I wouldn't bet on it. As Markoff writes:
The unifying vision of all of the challengers to the current system is a Wikipedia-like effort to make the nation’s laws freely searchable by Internet search engines. They believe this will lead to a public system of annotation of the laws by legal scholars as well as bloggers, giving the American public much richer access to the nation’s laws.