A New York federal judge has ruled that legal research giant West Publishing cannot bar other companies from copying and reprinting the text of its published court decisions.
The ruling, if upheld by the Supreme Court, could dramatically change the way legal research is done, giving the public broader access to inexpensive or free versions of court cases online.
While many cases are now available on the Net, comprehensive access to the text of U.S. decisions requires a high-priced subscription to database services maintained by West or competitor Lexis-Nexis.
Tuesday's decision stemmed from a small New York legal publisher's quest to publish U.S. court decisions on a CD-ROM, and ultimately on the Internet, in a format useful to lawyers.
West Publishing, which merged with the Stamford, Connecticut-based Thomson Publishing in 1996, has long produced what is considered the standard legal reference source for attorneys. The company publishes compilations of Supreme Court, appeals court, and district court decisions, along with brief summaries of the legal issues involved in the cases, called headnotes. The page numbering of the company's publications has become a standard way for lawyers to cite various decisions in court.
Enter Hyperlaw and Matthew Bender, another small legal publisher. Bender and Hyperlaw president Alan Sugarman wanted to include West's page-numbering system in their own electronic research tools. Without this reference system, they said, their electronic reference tools would be virtually useless to attorneys.
But West demurred, saying its page-numbering system was protected by copyright, as was the text of the decisions in its compilation books. Bender sued in 1996, and quickly was joined by Hyperlaw.
"What they're trying to get a copyright on is like trying to get a copyright on the chapter and verse numbering of the Bible," Sugarman said.
Hyperlaw also asked that it be able to copy the text of old decisions and court documents--which otherwise are unavailable--out of West's books.
A federal district judge ruled in May 1997 that West did not have copyright protection for its page-numbering system or for the text of the decisions it prints, even though it makes small changes in the text before publishing. On Tuesday, a New York appeals judge agreed.
The decision already has won praise from consumer groups who have sought access to court decisions beyond West's books and the expensive online services maintained by West and competitor Lexis.
"If Hyperlaw had lost this suit, 75 years of published federal court opinions would be owned by West Publishing. For every citizen that is expected to obey the law, this is good news," said James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, a group affiliated with Ralph Nader. "It means the law belongs to the people, not a private monopoly."
A West spokesman said the company was considering an appeal.
Sugarman said Wednesday that he eventually would put Supreme Court and federal appeals court decisions on the Internet, with the page-numbering system used by West. That would mark the first time that decisions available on the Internet could be cited by attorneys as easily as the copies found in library archives or in commercial legal databases.
The Hyperlaw president said he would wait until the case had been decided or rejected by the Supreme Court before using the West material, however.
West spokesman Patrick Sexton downplayed the decision's effect on the company. "This has no significant economic impact on us," he said, noting that West already licenses its page-numbering system to outside companies as a result of an antitrust consent decree forged during the Thomson-West merger.
Attorneys likely will stay with West's publications even if lower-priced competitors spring up online, Sexton said. "Lawyers will choose to go with who they trust," he added. "We think they're going to go with what's been tried-and-true for 126 years."
But Sugarman hopes to force more than a competitive restructuring of the legal research market. Once he and other competitors are able to copy decisions out of West books and reprint them or post them online, the incentive for West to maintain its comprehensive archives may diminish.
"The government has deferred to West, letting them become in a sense the official archive of the law," Sugarman said. Once West's profit incentive for providing this service dwindles, courts may be forced to keep and post their own archives electronically, he said. "This will make authoritative opinions available to everyone."