Free Access to Electronic Law
This is a Commentary published on 30 June 1997.
Citation: Williamson R, 'Free Access to Electronic Law ', Commentary, 1997 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/leginfo/97_2will>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_2/williamson/>
Discussion arising from this article.
'Citizens have the right of free access to databases of the laws that affect their lives'
Information technology has opened up new methods of publishing law and official information. In particular the wide and ever increasing availability of the Internet has reinforced demands that law should be made freely available on that medium. This is a right that few would seek to challenge.
But giving effect to this right of free access raises a number of issues that deserve examination and debate. As an electronic publisher of law and official information, Context has a clear commercial interest in the outcome of this debate. This paper does not set out to argue one side of the issue, but asks a number of questions that do need answering.
Using a law database requires training and knowledge. The citizen who needs to understand the law normally consults (and pays) a professional. Legal texts are the tools of the trade for professionals, who make the law, apply the law, interpret the law, teach the law. It is the professionals who at present use commercially available versions of law databases.
Those who argue that access to law databases should be free of charge must identify the beneficiaries of such access, and quantify the benefit they will receive.
The value added by a commercial electronic publisher to law data consists of a number of elements, including access software, indexing, cross-reference linking as well as intellectual value in terms of key words, thesaurus, commentary and so on.
Success in the marketplace depends on adding value that is perceived to be valuable by the end user. The electronic publisher makes a significant investment in adding value, recovered through fees. The presence of competition, both from other sources of the same data and from demands on the customers' budgets from other products, keeps the prices charged under the control of market pressures.
Delivery of a free service will need money. But electronic value isn't static. The user's expectations are influenced by the way software moves ever onward. New operating systems and new delivery media come into the market, and the user expects services to keep up with the available technology. Money will also be needed to maintain and develop a free service in line with market expectations. If a free service does not receive its funds from access charges, where will funds for delivery, maintenance and development come from?
If a free service is seen as benefiting the public, then public money will be needed. A debate is needed to define the source and application of such funds. How will budgets be set, which government department will be responsible for expenditure, how will priorities (between production, maintenance, development) be decided? What guarantee will there be that funds will continue to be made available for the provision of a free service in the annual round of competition for taxpayers' money?
Marketing and promotion by electronic publishers has created the substantial and increasing user base in this country of electronically delivered legal information. Database versions of legal sources are perceived as a highly valuable tools for use by professionals. Products are successful commercially because of after sales service in terms of extensive customer support as well as the value added by technology. This support includes provision of training both in the user interface and in the data itself, telephone help desk covering both technical and data queries, printed training materials, running user groups.
Marketing, promotion, support, all have to be paid for. Users expect high quality, and commercial publishers react quickly to rectify any perception of loss of quality by their users.
On what basis will funds be made available to allow a free service to maintain the level of support users expect from commercial services, and to promote the use of the service to new users?
This depends on the nature of the 'free' offering. If this is provided with many of the added value features typically supplied by commercial publishers (commentary, full text retrieval, hypertext linking, key words etc) then the answer is, almost certainly, 'No'.
Professional users of law databases currently benefit from the investment that is being made in product development by commercial publishers, through more and better products, advances in access software, improved levels of customer service. Commercial success means that this investment will continue and increase. If the benefits to end-users are to continue to be funded by commercial publishers, then the market for commercial products must continue and grow. A chargeable value added service can only co-exist with a free service if there are some limitations placed on the free service.
A debate is needed between commercial publishers and the advocates of free access to in order to establish the boundaries between free and commercial services.
The advocates of free access need to consider very carefully both the short and long term effects that their proposals will have on the provision of high quality, high value electronic legal databases. They would also do well to remember that the word "free" is misleading. Somebody - the taxpayer? - has to subsidise free usage.