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I haven’t rushed a response to Bob Berring’s comments on free legal information, partly because I wanted my response to be thoughtful rather than rushed.  I also felt that I’d made most of my rebuttal points in a previous response to a VoxPopuLII post by Dan Dabney, a West Group employee.  And if you’re looking for substance, I’d suggest that you read it now. These observations are more scattered.

I’ll make no bones about it: I felt that the tone of Bob’s piece was more than a little dismissive, and his use of the term “volunteers” reminds me of nothing so much as Vance Opperman’s use of “copyists” to describe West’s competitors back in the early 90’s.  It’s a convenient, minimizing label from West’s point of view — why else play it up in the interview material chosen for their web site? — but I’m not sure exactly what it means.

I’m not a volunteer in the ordinary sense of the word.  I draw a regular paycheck — very possibly not as large a one as I would if I worked for West Group, but a paycheck nevertheless.  Most of the folks I know in the open-access law game are getting paid by somebody to do what they do.  And the competition that West must fear most — the lowering of entry barriers to the law publishing marketplace by government release of bulk data — will not be the work of volunteers either.  Many of us are information professionals, and have been for a long time.  Some of us  — notably in Canada and Australia — have built open-access systems that are the de facto national resources for their respective countries.  Others, like SAFLII or Kenya Law Reports, are bringing law publishing to places which are simply too unprofitable for the larger companies to touch.  Like a lot of local courts and municipal governments in the US, for instance.

No doubt, though, there are a lot of passionate amateurs out there, and I’m sure they would qualify as volunteers.  Innovation breeds short-lived projects, and passion does not always go hand in hand with the dotting of T’s and the crossing of I’s.  And I have no doubt that there are many projects underway right now that will not be with us in a few years.  Others will learn from them, if there’s anything to learn, and build on what was learned, and so on.  It is remarkable, in some ways, that West has profited as little from such efforts as it has, except in areas like its core search and retrieval technologies, the automated classifiers that lie at the heart of the systems it uses to maintain its taxonomies,  the  web technologies it now uses to deliver its products, and so on.  The key discoveries on which those were based were largely the work of “volunteers”, at least within Bob’s meaning of the word, which seems to be anybody not working at a for-profit company.  Many were the product of publicly funded research.  No doubt West devoted many dollars to perfecting them.  But innovation tends to start with volunteers, people who have itches to scratch and no ability to resist the urge to do so.

Bob, of course, very much knows what he’s talking about when it comes to indexing and librarianship generally, and I would not argue with his conclusion that law unassisted by finding aids of various kinds is not as well suited to professional, specialist use as law that has those aids.  He leaves us to conclude all by ourselves that law that does not have those things, done as West has done them,  is of no use to anybody. That’s a silly idea, and maybe it isn’t what he really thinks, but his arguments outline a void into which it can rush all unbidden.

But in his defense, I have to say that Prof. Berring is not the only law librarian guilty of price insensitivity.  I would never argue with anything the library profession has to say about the relative utility of various legal information products if cost were never an issue for anyone.  What is remarkable is how little cost considerations enter these discussions, even as law firms and academic law libraries are slashing budgets and personnel.  No doubt there are times that it is appropriate to talk about quality in a way that is independent of price  — for example, when you’re trying to teach fledgling legal researchers how to recognize quality and how to “do it right”, whatever that may mean.  Most people end up doing it only as right as they can afford.  The public can’t afford West’s products, and increasingly large swaths of the profession are questioning whether they can either.

The questions we ought really to be considering have nothing to do with whether legal data collections are made by volunteers, unpaid spokespersons, pug-dogs, or space aliens.  They have  to do with the nature of the legal information business in 2009.  Suppose that the public and profession are patsies,  unable to resist the siren song of the volunteer efforts. Suppose, as the old showbiz saying goes, they start staying away from more expensive products in droves? Does that mean that legal information is like the newspaper business, victim of a soon-to-be-regretted shift of public attention from high-quality products to cheap, cloying informational junk food?  Or is it more like health care, where there is no price sensitivity because, much of the time, someone else is paying and the professionals are telling us to buy as much as we can?

That’s what us paid, long-term “volunteers” are thinking about.  The library profession should be too.

PS: Two other excellent rebuttals from our Canadian colleagues Daniel Poulin and Catherine Best have appeared today.  I recommend them highly.

[ Note: this piece is part of a trilogy on the West video:  1, 2, and 3 .  Kind of like the Lord of the Rings, only longer, with a less confusing plot, and very few cute hobbits.]