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Plug-in opens up federal courts, with your help

When you pay to download a court document, the next person won't have to, thanks to a Firefox browser plug-in that's a collaborative project of Princeton University and the Internet Archive.

If you want to use the Internet to peek at documents filed in federal court cases, it's usually possible. It's just relatively expensive.

The U.S. Congress allows the federal courts to charge a fee--currently set at 8 cents a page--to search for and download documents. The database, called PACER, is strict about charging and even levies fees for searches that result in no matches.

Which is why a pair of Princeton University graduate students, with some help from Harvard University's Berkman Center, have developed a Firefox browser plug-in called RECAP (PACER spelled backward). It's designed to make more court documents available to the public at no cost.

The way it works is simple: when you log in to the federal court system and pay with a credit card to download a document, the RECAP plug-in automatically and transparently forwards a copy to the Internet Archive, where it becomes available for free to the next person who wants to read it. It's a collaborative effort, with others benefiting from your purchases, while you benefit from theirs.

"RECAP helps users exercise their rights under copyright law, which expressly places government works in the public domain. It also helps users advance the public good by contributing to an extensive and freely available archive of public court documents," Harlan Yu, a Princeton graduate student, said in a blog post, marking Friday's public beta release. The other collaborators are Tim Lee, Steve Schultze, and Ed Felten.

There are some potential problems. One is that because the RECAP developers plan to make the source code available, it wouldn't be hard for someone to seed the Internet Archive with "official court documents" that had been modified in some way. (The answer is for users to pay to download important files from PACER, or for the courts to employ digital signatures.)

Another is this: the more successful that RECAP becomes, the more revenue PACER loses, which means the federal courts might eventually attempt to ban the use of it. Then again, that hasn't happened yet; until it does, RECAP is a must-install feature for any court junkie.

RECAP is also available on Download.com.