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This is not an article about what is sure to be the most annoying part of the upcoming “Friends” reunion. It is, first and foremost, about ROSS AI.  

Back in October, I wrote about my experience using the legal research Chrome extension from ROSS AI. It was meant to be the first in a regular series of features about other Free Law tools available to you out in the world. And we’ll get back to that next time. Meanwhile, something has happened; and you need to hear about it.

ROSS went out of business. That’s the short version.

The longer version is that Thomson Reuters (TR), owners of Westlaw, had sued ROSS earlier in 2020. The complaint alleges, in short, that ROSS had obtained in bulk from a third party copyright-protected Westlaw content (such as headnotes, Key Numbers, and other organizational/editorial content added to the cases by Westlaw editors) and used that material in developing its AI-assisted platform.

Predictably, ROSS immediately issued a press release denying the allegations, stating that any copyright-eligible material from Westlaw it obtained through its third-party partner “would have been useless to ROSS.”       

The litigation proceeded apace. Briefing on a motion to dismiss was completed (but the motion not yet heard) by the time I wrote my review of the Chrome extension. (The court would subsequently deny the motion in an order dated March 29, 2021.)  

In December of 2020, ROSS announced that it would cease all operations by the end of January, 2021 and concentrate solely on fighting the TR lawsuit.  ROSS’s founder wrote, “With our company ensnared by this legal battle, we have been unable to raise another round of funding to fuel our development and marketing efforts.” 

Before we go any further, it’s important to say that I do not know whether or not the allegations in TRs complaint have merit or will be borne out by the evidence. Also, I understand just how common this is, and that many of the lawyers among our subscriber base have seen similar stories of young companies driven to extinction by the direct and indirect costs of defending themselves against allegations of intellectual property infringement or theft brought by very companies they are seeking to usurp. I’m also aware that some of us in the bar have worked for those large and well-resourced companies. And, at the risk of being redundant, I also understand that sometimes these allegations prove to be true and actionable.

In any event, ROSS subsequently filed an amended answer, including nine counterclaims attacking not only Westlaw’s claims of copyright, but also alleging antitrust violations. (Thomson Reuters has moved to dismiss the antitrust counterclaims.) In a concurrently-posted statement on its website, ROSS wrote:  

America is a country based on laws. The law belongs to all of us. It governs us, protects us, and forms the basis of our great democracy. Our highest ideal is justice for all. This depends on the people—all people—having access to the law. But for Westlaw, the public law is nothing but a commodity to be bought and purchased and a fiefdom to be protected at all costs. 

It’s quite a coincidence that the case I was researching when I first wrote about ROSS was the Supreme Court’s recent clarification of copyright law’s Government Edicts Doctrine, Georgia v. Public Resource.Org. Will that opinion have any impact on this case?  It could directly impact what the court ultimately determines to be the validity or the scope of the copyright TR claims.  

Beyond this particular litigation, the Georgia v. PRO case could indirectly impact the for-profit legal publishing industry by changing the perceived incentives for companies like TR to enter into contracts to be the original publishers of statutes, regulations, or case law.  

And Georgia v. PRO is not the Court’s most recent word on copyright. Earlier this month, it decided Google v. Oracle. In that case, the Court articulated what many believe to be an expanded understanding of the doctrine of Fair Use. Will ROSS be able to use that opinion to support the declaratory judgment it seeks that any alleged copying was fair use?  

There is much more to say about the intersection of the Government Edicts Doctrine, Fair Use, and publishing the law–whether for profit or not. As our team and others explore these topics, we’ll be sure to share the best parts with you.

Nichole McCarthy
Glass of lemonade and lemons

At this point last year, we had no idea what was going to happen. No one did.  But we knew our donors had treated us generously (thanks again!), and we were on pace to record a surplus when our fiscal year wrapped up at the end of June. We also knew that the dual threat of economic uncertainty and remote work meant that many law students were seeing their summer job plans shrink dramatically or disappear altogether.  We decided to offer summer employment to any Cornell student who approached us, and to advertise that offer aggressively within the (virtual) halls of Cornell Law School. This would be a classic “win-win” scenario, where more students would find meaningful, law-related summer employment, while we (and you!) would get more new original content than we are usually capable of producing. It seemed like a classic opportunity to, as the old saying goes, take the lemons we’d been handed and make some lemonade.  

We began feverishly planning an ambitious student project to make use of the extra labor. We wanted to refurbish as many of the short definitions in our Wex legal reference as possible.  

It all (somehow) came together, and since this time last year we have seen dozens of students on the Wex Definition Team research and draft more than 1,000 improved Wex definitions.  

As the dust settled on a busy summer and the stream of new and improved Wex entries slowed to a trickle as classes started in September, we were tired and proud. We also had a couple of new problems. First, we’d seen the results that vigorous student employment could yield, and we were hungry for more. Second, all that time we’d just spent in Wex identifying definitions to be improved upon and publishing those improvements left us keenly aware of the untapped potential of that collection.

So did what any small team of professionals would do when faced with such a challenge: we asked for help! We were able to raise sufficient funds to hire our first ever Original Content Collections Manager. Just a few weeks ago, we were able to welcome Nichole McCarthy to our team!

Nichole views access to information as a form of advocacy when it prepares individuals and groups to make informed decisions. She has demonstrated her passion for information services through more than 7 years of human services advocacy experience – serving both non-profit agencies and the State of New York. Trained as a librarian, she has worked in public, academic, and specialized libraries and previously supported the Law Library of Congress as a Metadata Intern. She has also worked as a librarian at a law firm and as a volunteer archivist for  KRIA: The Icelandic Constitution Archives, where she archived over 1,000 webpages. In addition to her M.S. in Library and Information Science, Nichole has a B.A. in Women’s Studies and a M.S. in Criminal Justice Administration.

Nichole’s first task is to train and manage the sizable cohort of students who will make up the Wex Definitions Team this summer.  

Longer term, Nichole is tasked with a pair of huge challenges:  

  1. To design and implement a better system of organization within Wex to help readers get to additional primary and secondary resources on our website and beyond that relate to the article they are viewing; and 
  2. To create new kinds of original content, as well as a viable structure for recruiting, training, and managing larger networks of pre-law undergraduates, law students, and volunteer experts from around the country (around the globe?) to populate and maintain those collections

Nichole’s arrival and mission is just one of the brands of lemonade we are making out of the big bushel of lemons that the pandemic has handed us. We’ll keep you posted as we refine our recipe!  

The LII Helped 38 million people find and understand the law in 2020

While it seems like much longer,  we started off 2020 just a year ago by presenting the prior year as a series of significant numbers.  Without intending to minimize what we all went through since then, here’s 2020 “by the numbers” for LII:

38,856,622 people used our website 66,399,539 times and spent a total of 1,581 years reading 164,336,608 pages of content.  Please read more about that in the Cornell Chronicle article: Institute Breaks Record in 2020, Making Laws Easy to Access

3,751,971 referrals arrived from 49,349 websites, including:

  • 139,396 from educational platforms and institutions,
  • 187,951 from federal, state, and local government,
  • 252,738 from news organizations,
  • 351,293 from Wikipedia, and
  • 1,391,868 referrals from social media.

1,351,432 pages of state regulations content made their way to the public.  With sponsorship from Public.Resource.Org and a raw data feed from Fastcase, LII developed and made available to the public a comprehensive collection of state regulations. We had long hoped to facilitate access to law below the federal level, and the raw data feed let us build a comprehensive collection from the start, so we can see how federal law plays out at the state level. 

$130,000 dollars went into the Tom Bruce Legal Information Innovation Fellowship Fund.  Once it reaches $400,000, that endowed fund will pay for a Fellow to spend the summer in Ithaca each year advancing the state of the art in legal informatics and related fields.

1,041 donors responded to a short donor survey.  Those results will not only help us focus our efforts on the website and improve our communications with you, but also provide valuable insight into how people use and perceive Free Law resources.  

964 Wex definitions were improved by Cornell Law students, including timely updates to articles such as “blanket search warrant,” “electioneering,” and “Citizens United.”

198 new entries in the Women and Justice collection, including summaries of the UK Domestic Violence, Crime, and Victims Act, the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act, the Ghanaian Human Trafficking Act, and the Tunesian Law on Eliminating Violence against Women.

7 apps in the Cornell Tech Law App Showcase for which LII language and data science specialist, Dr. Sylvia Kwakye, served on the judging panel. In addition to immigration topics (asylum, Green Cards, visas, citizenship, and immigration relief), app topics also included divorce case assessment and assistance dog rights. 

4 presentations at this year’s virtual Law Via the Internet Conference. Craig Newton spoke on Georgia v. Public.Resource. Org; Sara Frug presented on a panel on free access to scholarship and on another panel on the potential for free access to law publishers to help downbias legal data sets that support artificial intelligence applications; Neli Karabelova presented on a panel discussing how to communicate user impacts. 

122 student employees, many of whom were displaced from other summer jobs by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, 8 full-time staff members ran the LII:

  • 5 technologists
  • 1 office manager
  • 1 communications specialist
  • 1 lawyer

We know what you’re thinking. We’re thinking it too.  Heck, the entire world is thinking it: thank goodness 2020 is over!

Except it isn’t.  Almost, but not quite.  There are still {a few hours} left in 2020.  And this is important, because it means that there are still {a few hours} left for you to help us in our 2020 fundraiser. And, because a generous donor has offered to match all donations for the rest of 2020, your procrastination will be doubly rewarded.

DONATE NOW

A lot of you have generously donated already.  We are deeply grateful for it— as we are every year, of course, but we are even more grateful this year, since we know how rough a year it has been for everyone. Even for those among our readers who didn’t have to fear for their lives working in person as teachers or police officers or small business owners, the seemingly uninterrupted stream of bad news, ill-timed technical glitches, and interruptions made for an isolating and stressful time for everyone – ourselves included.

But in rough times, people interact with the law. Which is why, despite all the craziness that 2020 has thrown our way, we have carried on doing what we do best: providing free law to those who need it. Free access to law makes it possible to meet information needs we often don’t even know about until they become urgent. During lockdowns, we helped people find the law about public health and small business development. During protests, we helped people find the law about the federal government and policing. And during a long and contentious election season, we’ve helped people understand facets of election law most of us had never before realized would become relevant – until suddenly it was.  

But we can only do all this with your support. So before we all give 2020 a hearty shove out the back door tell it to come back never, please consider giving a gift that will allow us to provide the law to people on what we dearly hope will be the happier, more optimistic topics in demand in the forthcoming year. 

DONATE NOW

Thank you,

Sara Frug

Co-Director

Legal Information Institute

It’s almost Christmas, and many of our thoughts are turning to time off, eggnog, spruce trees, Dickens stories, and the law. 

Wait, what? 

As we do our work at LII, many of our most fruitful questions fall under the category of “what is the law of where I’m standing right now?” And at this time of year, even for those of us from other traditions, such questions are often along the lines of: “what is the law of this holiday, this ornament, this string of lights, this Christmas tree?” Now, if you’re wondering what’s the point of asking such a question, consider that although most people think of Christmas trees as a festive holiday tradition, for many small businesses, they are, more centrally, a federally regulated agricultural crop. So, if you search the Code of Federal Regulations, you can find a formal definition of a Christmas tree (“any tree of the coniferous species, that is severed or cut from its roots and marketed as a Christmas tree for holiday use”.) You can also find definitions of who counts as a producer, regulations for the establishment of a Christmas tree promotion board, and multiple other things that are far more legally complex than tinsel and tree-top angels.  

It’s not just trees; Christmas comes up in a lot of other places.  It’s a federal holiday, of course, during which the government especially encourages displays of the U.S. flag, but anglers are unwelcome in the Guam National Wildlife Refuge. (Small!) Christmas gifts are exempted from the ban on gifts between federal employees and their supervisors or subordinates. And, although Christmas light sets are not consumer commodities under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, Christmas decorations are.  

Christmas also comes up in a variety of far more serious contexts. Religious displays on public property have made their way to the Supreme Court.  Forest management regulations set forth the rules for cutting down trees on federal and state lands.  The Indian Schools Equalization Program provides funds for a round trip home.  Wage and hour laws preserve the status of full-time students over their vacations.  (Again, small) Christmas presents are used as an example of nonrecurring gifts that are exempted from income calculations in financial assistance programs.  

Especially at this time of year, it means a great deal to us that we can help people find and understand where the law meets their circumstances, however common or unusual those circumstances might be. By supporting free access to law, you help people from all walks of life fulfill information needs we can only begin to imagine – to keep their businesses open, their refrigerators stocked, their spirits up. Whether you celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, enjoy it as time away from work, use it as an opportunity to fill in for those who are celebrating, or have a professional or personal interest in it as a legal matter, we hope you will take a moment in this season to help us continue to provide free access to law to everyone who might need it.  

DONATE NOW

On behalf of all of us at LII, happy holidays, and thank you for your support, 

Sara Frug

Co-Director

Legal Information Institute

LII is a site for law, but most visitors to the website are not lawyers.  A journalist in Missouri recently donated and said “I use this resource all the time.”  Another in Florida told us that our explanations of the law are “invaluable” for her work covering legal issues.  A Texas CPA specializing in tax compliance and consulting left us a note with her gift saying she uses the LII to answer her clients’ questions.  A forensic psychologist in Utah called our website “a superb resource” for his practice when he made his donation.   

MAKE YOUR GIFT TODAY

Beyond our users, our research also suggests that most of our supporters are not lawyers—or, if they are lawyers, they practice law without the benefit of expensive legal research databases.  So, both the government attorney who recently told us her access to paid research services is “very restricted” and the other federal worker who said she uses our US Code collection routinely and recommends our website to unrepresented parties support us  right alongside the autism researcher who uses our website when filling out grant paperwork.

And, of course, there are those who can (and do) use other legal research methods but either prefer the features in our collections or simply appreciate the availability of free resources for use by all.  Take, for example, the public health attorney in Michigan who appreciates the structure of our U.S. Code despite noting the “many good resources” available to her, or the lawyer in Virginia who relies on our free Supreme Court Bulletin Previews to stay apprised of the Supreme Court’s doings but donates because he “truly believes” in our mission of “access to the law for everyone.”  

Our supporters represent dozens of professions (or more!) and range in age from students to retirees.  We hear each year from as many self-described “ordinary citizens” as we do from members of the bar.  And we appreciate each and every one of them.

Whether you share our deep commitment to Free Law or merely appreciate that we’re the top search result when you go looking for the precise wording of FRCP 26, we hope you’ll consider showing your support for what we do.

MAKE YOUR GIFT TODAY

Thank you,

Craig

Craig Newton

Co-Director

The Legal Information Institute  

In the midst of all the chaos this year, the United States Supreme Court did something remarkable.  We’ve already told you about Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org and its impact on opening up state-law materials; but, now is the perfect time to look a little more closely at what the Court said and why it was so good to hear.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts explained that “no one can own the law. ‘Every citizen is presumed to know the law,’ and ‘it needs no argument to show … that all should have free access’ to its contents.”  We’ve been beating that drum since 1992, and it’s wonderful to hear it echo at the Supreme Court.  We wouldn’t have arrived here without your generous support.

Donate now

But it’s something else the Chief Justice wrote that I want to focus on.  He invited readers to “imagine a Georgia citizen interested in learning his legal rights and duties.”   He notes that readers of the “economy-class version of the Georgia code available online” would come across laws that have been invalidated by courts.  “Meanwhile,” he noted, “first class readers with access to the annotations will be assured that these laws are, in crucial respects, unenforceable relics that the legislature has not bothered to narrow or repeal.”  

By posing that scenario, the Chief Justice was clear that the public deserves free access to complete and correct resources that fully enumerate and explain citizens’ rights and obligations.  And he assumes that citizens will go online to access them.  This is a HUGE shift from where we started out, when it seemed not just fashionable but downright “responsible” for judges, lawyers and academics to question the utility and reliability of free online legal resources available to the general public.  Only lawyers needed the law, the argument went, and trusting its dissemination exclusively to a duopoly of deep-pocketed publishers to keep it out of the hands of everyone else seemed more like a solution than a problem in that worldview.  

But even in those early days, we knew that all of you are “first class readers” who use the law to do your work, solve your problems, participate in society, and generally live your lives.  It has always been our top priority to bring you accurate, updated, and unbiased primary and secondary sources of legal information to help you do all that.  And, it turns out, the Supreme Court agrees that’s a very good idea.  

Donate now

Thank you for supporting us,

Craig Newton
Co-Director

Legal Information Institute

Dear friend,

The magic is working. Day in, day out, people continue to flock to the LII website for unfiltered primary sources on current events, for context on commonly-encountered legal situations, for school and for work. Most importantly, though, folks continue to use LII in ways that reach countless others. 

“I use this resource all the time as a journalist. Thank you!”

Despite difficult circumstances all around, those who are able to pitch in have continued to support us. And for today, Giving Tuesday, a generous group of donors has pledged to match every gift we receive. Twice.

Triple your impact today only

Because LII is an information service, for better or worse, we see a great deal of uncertainty and need behind our traffic. We are grateful that we continue to be able to serve the thousands of schools and nonprofits that refer traffic to us, and grateful that your (tripled!) gift will, in turn, help so many worthy causes leverage their own resources.

“Thank you so much for your continued work on this mission. I work for an under resourced agency and free access to your information truly makes a difference.”

“I am empowered by your website as I am in a Legal Nurse Consultant program and I use this website to help me better understand terms and definitions. Thank you.”

“I teach law. Most of my students go into solo or small firm practice. Having this resource is a life-saver for many of them because they cannot afford the various paid research services. But they still have clients who deserve justice.”

Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And because the application of ever-emerging technologies is central to fulfilling our mission, it’s easy to get caught up in the technology. But the real magic is in what the technology lets us do for real people, whether directly, or by empowering people and organizations to help others. Thank you for helping us work this magic.

Triple your impact today

Thank you,

Sara Frug
Co-Director
Legal Information Institute

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“From Brooklyn to the Bench: A Conversation,” part of the 2014 Ezra Cornell Circle Reception, with Arts and Sciences (CAS) Dean Gretchen Ritter and the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Cornell’s own Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an icon and a trailblazer in more ways than we can easily list here, passed away this September. There is, of course, no better way to celebrate the legacy of the late Justice than through her work on the Supreme Court. We’ve selected a few of our favorite readings from the past month:

You can find a full list of Opinions, Dissents and Concurrences by Ruth Bader Ginburg on our website if you’re looking for that deep dive. 

SCOTUSBlog featured a symposium on Justice Ginsburg’s jurisprudence.

Adam Liptak, long-time SCOTUS reporter for the New York Times, focuses on the role of dissent in her work.

Eduardo Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, reflects on the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue”.

Illinois law dean and professor Vikram David Amar considers one majority opinion and two dissents by the late Justice that he finds himself most drawn to for Verdict. 

Cornell University will pay permanent tribute to her through both a new program fund and a physical space.

I Voted sticker

On Thursday August 20, 2020 President Trump said he would send law enforcement officials to polling locations for the Nov. 3, 2020 general election.  But our traffic shows that 18 U.S.C. § 594, the federal statute outlawing voter intimidation, was already on people’s minds.  Beginning on August 13, we saw a brief increase in interest there.  A typical day would bring around 50 viewers to that section of the US Code.  On August 13, that number jumped to 338. While 10 visitors arrived there that day from a Washington Post article, as usual the vast majority (about three-quarters) came straight from search engines, 

Traffic there peaked on August 21—the day after President Trump’s statement—with 805 viewers reading 18 U.S.C. § 594.  By August 25, viewership was back in the double digits.  The graph from Google Analytics looks like this.

Google analytics traffic graph

We noted the spike in the #Trending channel of our internal Slack, and we made a note to  consider it for this newsletter article.  But what looked like a spike turned out to be just a bump in comparison of what was to come.

Saturday, September 19th marked the start of a triple spike, where the periods in between the peaks matched the traffic from what we had considered a spike back in August.  That day, 1898 people read 18 U.S.C. § 594.  The number went up to 2,685 the next day before beginning to drop back down to 1,415 on Monday–still higher than the peak of the August spike.

Just as traffic returned to a level that matched a “typical” day during the August spike (around 350 visits to the page), a second, even larger spike began.  That spike began on September 30, the day after the first presidential debate.  Over 4,000 people came to the page, probably because of President Trump’s heavily-reported “stand back and stand by” remark during the debate the night before.  While traffic dropped back down from that peak fairly quickly, it  remained at the same levels that constituted a “spike” when we observed it in August.  For example, Thursday October 8 was a relatively “quiet” day for the page in October, with only 446 visits.  But 446 would have been the second-highest daily total in August.   

We saw a third spike to the page corresponding with the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett.  The hearings began on Monday, October 12th.  The next day, more than 2,000 people read 18 U.S.C. § 594.  That spike lasted all week. Over the weekend of October 18 & 19, more than 1,200 people visited the page, split roughly equally between Saturday and Sunday.  

Here is what all of that looks like, from the before the August bump through Sunday, October 18th:

As you can see from the graph, traffic to 18 U.S.C. § 594 last weekend almost matched what we thought was a spike back in August.  We don’t think we are done seeing interest in this page over the coming weeks.