The Thomson West and LexisNexis duolopoly has had stranglehold on people’s access to legal information for decades. But as John Markoff of the New York Times reports, their control of the nearly $5 billion legal publishing market is being challenged by a few organizations who believe the law should be freely accessible via the Internet.

…[Carl] Malamud [founder of public.resource.org] and a diverse group of backers argue that the control of publishing court rulings subverts the original intent of the framers of the Constitution by making the nation’s laws difficult to obtain by those outside the legal profession.

In a letter to West Publishing last Wednesday, Mr. Malamud said his intent was to make federal and state court decisions available to a population that cannot afford the subscription costs.

Legal codes and cases are the ‘operating system’ of the nation, he said. ‘The system only works if we can all openly read the primary sources,’ he said in the letter. ‘It is crucial that the public domain data be available for anybody to build upon.’

Malamud is not alone. A joint effort by Columbia Law School’s Program on Law and Technology and the Silicon Flatirons program at the University of Colorado Law School called AltLaw is going to provide free access to the last decade of federal appellate and Supreme Court opinions.

Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor told the times:

I’m a legal academic and I woke up one day and thought, ‘Why can’t I get cases the same way I get stuff on Google? People should be able to get cases easily. This is a big exception to the way information has opened up over the past decade.

And Justia’s Tim Stanley, who Thomson West fired after acquiring Find Law which Tim co-founded, told the Times:

There is supposed to be no ignorance of the law, and yet it’s not even accessible to most people.

Justia is spending about $10,000 a month to send people to copy documents at the Supreme Court so the company can place it online for free access.

With the advancement of the net, our case law, code law, law reviews, and legal periodicals are going to go open source – perhaps at alarming rate to Thomson and LexisNexis. Like software companies, the dualopoly will need to sell services and value add products associated with the law to protect their revenues.

Technorati Tags: ,