It is common sense within the information industry that revenue will shift from print to online (see Ulrich Hermann, CEO of Wolters Kluwer Germany, in FAZ on April 7th 2010, p. 15).
But what is the impact of current technical trends in metadata standards on legal online services in Germany? Is there any impact? If you take the real market penetration of metadata standards into account, one could say that the concept of metadata standards has failed. At least, standards such as the “Saarbrücker Standard” (a standard, created in 2000, for court decisions in German jurisdictions) have never been used widely. Nevertheless we kicked off jurMeta — a proposed new metadata standard for German-language legal resources — at the EDV-Gerichtstag 2009, a major German conference on judicial information systems.
Market trends in Germany
In order to understand the impact of metadata standards, we need to consider such standards in the context of legal online services in Germany, and current trends.
What are the market trends in online services in Germany? The content coverage is rapidly growing, particularly from an end-user’s perspective. State authorities and publishing houses are publishing primary content free of charge for various reasons; law firms are running blogs with comments on the latest court cases (JuraBlogs); lawyers and clients are using services that publish advice, even when related to concrete disputes (frag-einen-anwalt.de). European legislation (in particular the Public Sector Information Directive) is encouraging member states and public sector bodies to take proactive measures to promote reuse of public sector information in order to exploit its business potential.
At the same time the technical infrastructure for sharing information is getting better. Interested persons do not need any technical skills to instantly set up a vertical search engine with Google custom search. Open source tools are even covering high end demands of private online publishers. There is an open source tool or project that addresses the private publisher’s needs in any aspect, e.g. performance (CouchDB), machine learning (Mahout), or relevance ranking (Open Relevance Project). And in most cases it is not only a solution but a high end solution that can be adopted free of (licensing) cost.
Of course social networks have to be named as a trend in law online. Services such as Marktplatz-Recht.de, JUSMEUM, and justanswer are creating communities of legal professionals. These services combine the benefits of online communities with expertise in the area of law and thus generate new revenue streams. Social networks organize value-adding-processes efficiently since they allow one to exploit cognition [i.e., the people having the most knowledge] at the source. (I once called this the paradigm of the “cheapest value adder”; see Gütezeichen als Qualitätsaussage im digitalen Informationsmarkt: dargestellt am Beispiel elektronischer Rechtsdatenbanken (2000), p. 25.) Chances are high that vertical social networks will repeat the success of their generic predecessors, at least at a smaller scale.
Do legal online services exhibit these features only in Germany? The answer is No. These market trends are most likely valid throughout the world. I will come to the specifics of legal online services in Germany shortly.
First let me sum up what I consider to be the major driver in legal online services for the next couple of years. This is what I would like to label “Digital Convergence”–not the above-mentioned individual trends in the areas of content, technical infrastructure, and users/community, but a synergetic combination of these three trends that will drive the future of legal online services.
What are the characteristics of legal online services in Germany in 2010?
First, the fact that Germany is a code-based country makes legal online services in Germany an ideal target for any kind of invention in the area of text retrieval. For example, at the federal level there are more than 5,000 pieces of legislation with more than 100 provisions each. If you think of one specific term in paragraph 4 of § 97 GWB as a very precise reference to a specific legal issue, consider that
- § 97 GWB is one out of more than 500,000 provisions,
- these provisions follow a semantic structure, and
- nearly all existing legal documents refer to specific provisions at the European, federal, state, or municipal level.
You thus get a sense of the challenge of legal online services in Germany. But you also get a sense of their potential. One could put it this way: The semantic web of legal content in Germany already exists; we “only” have to apply a common syntactical representation in order to create a very rich business resource by linking millions of individual and heterogeneous documents. The projects that share a common syntactical representation (e.g., jurMeta) will be rich sources for additional value-adding processes such as data mining.
Second, end-users of legal documents are by nature very conscious about retrieval quality. No matter whether they are aware of the parameters for retrieval quality such as scope, recall and precision, end users (e.g., lawyers) know that the one make-or-break case could exist; therefore the goal of any kind of information retrieval effort is to retrieve this one case but not others. To measure the relevance of retrieval results is very difficult, but determining relevance in law is far easier than in other domains. The importance of retrieval quality to end users of legal information systems is of course not specific to Germany, but is still an important driver for resource allocation in online retrieval projects. Therefore, legal research is the ideal test area for technical innovations in search and retrieval. Taking into account that lawyers are an attractive target group, investors will to a larger degree focus on legal research as a business opportunity. Such investment should speed progress.
Third, an important parameter for legal online services in Germany is the availability of primary legal content (legislation and case law). Public authorities in Germany claim copyright — at least to some extent — in official documents, and their efforts at publishing primary legal content online have been rudimentary. The existing offerings of legal content set up by state authorities are end-user oriented and very heterogeneous. The service providers — such as this firm — that technically publish the legal documents on behalf of the public authorities are private companies with business interests relating to legal information. Thus, allowing these companies to publish primary legal content on behalf of the public authorities is like letting the fox rule the henhouse. After all, official documents are the result of the tax-funded work of public authorities.
A modern publication infrastructure for primary legal content should functionally separate data collection from dissemination. Official documents should, if required, be anonymized, and stored on servers in a well-structured format for anybody to download either free-of-charge, or at cost of dissemination. This would allow non-commercial projects as well as commercial users to focus on value-adding processes, rather than crawling and re-engineering data that already exists as part of proprietary collections. In economic terms, this would lead to improved resource allocation, strengthen electronic media as tools for democratic processes, and support the goals of the Public Sector Information Directive.
Legal online research in Germany in 2020
In order to analyze the impact of metadata standards on legal publishers, I will be so bold as to predict how legal online services could look in 2020:
- a) Public authorities will be obliged to publish any official document electronically in a well-structured format on servers accessible for anybody, for commercial or non-commercial use, at cost of dissemination.
- b) There will be a wide range of legal online information services free of charge serving all sorts of information needs and target groups. These will range from easy-to-use systems for one-time users to expert systems for professionals.
- c) The motivations for setting up legal online information services will vary to a larger extent than they do today. Successful online projects will have to support this growing range of motivations. (See Felix Zimmermann, JurMeta: A New Metadata Initiative for Legal Documents.) Since setting up legal online services will even be easier in 2020 than in 2010, more people will set up such services.
- d) If one measures retrieval quality by recall and precision, I bet nearly all free services in 2020 will be better than the existing commercial legal online services in Germany in 2010. I invite anybody to come up with a proposal for a concrete experimental design with which to test this thesis, and I am curious to see the results of the experiment that proves this thesis wrong. But in any case:
- e) The beneficiary of these trends will be the end user of legal information.
Impact on fee-based services and traditional publishing houses
Assuming that legal information services will radically improve in the future, is there a business opportunity for traditional publishing houses in legal online services at all? If the answer is yes, what will be the parameters for (business) success?
Applying a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis will identify the threats and opportunities for publishing houses. An important threat is the increasing speed of activity and change in the market. The technical lead-time of open-source-based start-ups might be too large for traditional publishers. An acquisition could help a traditional publisher catch up, but only if the acquirer is willing to adjust its processes and business principles. All traditional publishing houses I know claim to be customer oriented. I am convinced that market pressure (i.e., competition) will increase because of the numerous new legal online services being launched over the next couple of years. A substantial opportunity for traditional publishing houses lies in increasing the benefits that users derive from legal information, rather than trying to convert book selling to online media.
The biggest advantage of established legal publishing houses, as opposed to new start-ups, is their brand recognition, and the chance to position themselves as gatekeepers for high quality information. The corresponding threat is –- again –- based on new technologies: Services such as UserVoice allow new content providers to gain user feedback more effectively than through traditional market research, and at very low cost. Online social networks are analyzing the interactions among users, and are trying to exploit users’ behavior and ratings on the fly for business purposes. We will see whether traditional publishing houses will timely make use of such technologies, or whether such publishers will be able to catch up if they miss the chance to apply these new tools.
Assuming that, as mentioned above, a combination of trends will drive the future of legal online services, the publisher that identifies the synergies of the “digital convergence” and first applies them in customer products has the best chance to benefit from the current trends. Those that move too late might lose even more revenue than currently expected due to the change from print to online information.
So what about the impact of metadata standards such as jurMeta on legal online services in Germany? Metadata standards are an important component of the concept of the above-mentioned “digital convergence.” They are the syntactical bridge from the raw materials of German legal documents to the Semantic Web of legal information in Germany. Metadata standards for legal information services support decentralized value-adding processes, and thus are the key parameter for exploiting the synergies enabled by “digital convergence.” The metadata standards that best serve the various needs of the greatest number of legal online projects and services, will succeed.
Dr. Andreas Bock is CEO of kjur.de. After writing his Ph.D. thesis on the quality of digital information services (Gütezeichen als Qualitätsaussage im digitalen Informationsmarkt: dargestellt am Beispiel elektronischer Rechtsdatenbanken (2000)) at the Institute for Legal Informatics of the University of Hannover with Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kilian, he worked for Westlaw (2000 to 2003) and LexisNexis (2003 to 2007), heading product development of their respective international legal online projects in Germany. Dr. Bock currently practices law at Kehr-Ritz. Together with Felix Zimmermann, he launched kjur.de, an online service for free legal content, in 2009.