ravel screenshot

Remember Ravel  – that cool legal research system that was ever so generously scanning every book in the Harvard Law Library to make it all available online at no cost?  In yesterday’s big legal news, LEXIS announced  that it had acquired Ravel, and will incorporate Ravel’s offerings – both its free Harvard caselaw file and its analytics tools –  to expand LEXIS’ existing suite of products.

As for the Ravel-Harvard free caselaw that the New York Times and everyone (well,  except me) was drooling about? According to Bob Ambrogi’s  post on the acquisition, LEXIS remains committed to continuing access to Ravel’s free library.

Let’s just say that I’m skeptical.  For starters, LEXIS really didn’t have a choice over whether to continue free access.  That’s because Harvard and Ravel agreed to release the entire database for use by anyone within eight years – long before LEXIS came on the scene.  As a result, the obligation to make the Harvard library files free was presumably a condition of the deal.

Moreover, it’s one thing to agree to make caselaw available at no cost; it’s quite another to devote the resources to continually improve free resources.  Google Scholar  is the gold standard of free – and it keeps getting better with age  because its database of cases is automatically updated and its search engine grows smarter each time it’s used.

By contrast, because Ravel’s database consists of scanned materials, will LEXIS and/or Ravel continue to update the scanned collection, or will users have access only to old materials, but be required to pay for updates?  Likewise, as LEXIS and Ravel improve their search tools, will these improvements be available as part of the free service, or reserved for premium users?

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not suggesting that either Ravel, having invested millions in its Harvard scanning project or LEXIS, a deep-pocketed legal behemoth, aren’t entitled to turn a profit.  But why not be honest about profit as the goal?  Instead of casting itself as some kind of Carl Malamud fighting to free the law, why didn’t Ravel admit that it always intended to capitalize on the scanned caselaw, and that its willingness to give away a few scraps was either the cheapest way to gain access to the cases, or a cause marketing  gimmick? Likewise, why couldn’t LEXIS just say straight out that it bought a company that had obligated itself to make caselaw free, and that LEXIS was honoring the deal because it had to.

It’s too bad that LEXIS and Ravel didn’t take a lesson in transparency from another analytics company, Legal Optics. Legal Optics recently launched an algorithm to analyze data from Florida DUI cases and identify the attorneys who obtain the best results. Consumers can use this tool to make more informed decisions when hiring a lawyer.  But even though Legal Optics’ analytics provide an important public service to consumers, the company is “not shy” about admitting that it’s a moneymaking venture that will generate revenue through attorney advertising.  In a legal tech market dominated by for-profit companies feigning an interest in access to justice , Legal Optics’ approach is forthright and refreshing.