Tuesday, August 25, 2009


In an effort to jiggle loose the Justice Department's Pacer database, programmers from Harvard, Princeton and the Internet Archive have provided a Firefox Plug-in called RECAP (that's PACER spelled backwards). It tests the search you run in PACER against a database of already-retrieved documents that have been donated to a free "shadow" PACER database, RECAP. If the document you want exists in RECAP, you get it for free. Yay!

If the document isn't already in the free database, sadly, you have to pay. But, you get to be a hero and donate it to the RECAP database so the next person will get it for free.

Here are two stories about RECAP:

Wired and Reason

Tip of the OOTJ hat to Michael Lynch.


cyrano said...

Betsy, I'm going to go against the flow here and suggest that the PACER fees aren't evil. For one thing, the ECF/PACER regime makes life for us who practice in federal court so much easier, by a huge factor. It's also far cheaper to retrieve documents we need, because when we had to get paper copies, the per-page copy charge was between 10 and 25 cents per page-- and then there's the time cost involved. It was a routine part of bankruptcy hearing practice to count on spending an hour or two on top of your court time, making copies for everyone's files. Further, I don't buy the logical leap from the fact that, because case files are open to the public, copies from them should be free. What happens if RECAP successfully captures enough documents that fewer people use PACER? Does PACER raise its fees for those who can't find what they want on RECAP? Does it end its service? Just because something can be copied electronically doesn't mean that its price ought to be zero-- unless you simply want to drive the entity providing the original out of that business.

That said, whoever orchestrated the silly and misleading campaign saying that RECAP constituted a security breach wasn't thinking clearly either.

Malbone said...

I feel generally good about the idea of RECAP. Public documents ought to be free, and RECAP may counter the trend in this tight economy for public record holders to start charging for access to documents.

It is possible that RECAP might save the government some money. I would posit that once the system has been set up, the biggest costs of PACER might be storing the documents (which it has to do anyway) and the bandwidth needed to transfer them to users on demand. By providing documents from its own server, RECAP might reduce the bandwidth demand on PACER.

My one reservation about RECAP is that its developers ought to promise that their document library will be free in perpetuity and will not be sold to a commercial provider. It might be fairly simple for a for-profit company to use free access to leverage a corps of volunteer document uploaders, only to abandon them later on for a fee-based model. That ought to be ruled out immediately.