Law.Gov: America's Operating System, Open Source

Public.Resource.Org is very pleased to announce that we’re going to be working with a distinguished group of colleagues from across the country to create a solid business plan, technical specs, and enabling legislation for the federal government to create Law.Gov. We envision Law.Gov as a distributed, open source, authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States. More details on the effort are available on our Law.Gov page.

The process we’re going through to create the case for Law.Gov is a series of workshops hosted by our co-conveners. At the end of the process, we’re submitting a report to policy makers in Washington. The process will be an open one, so that in addition to the main report which I’ll be authoring, anybody who wishes to submit their own materials may do so. There is no one answer as to how the raw materials of our democracy should be provided on the Internet, but we’re hopeful we’re going to be able to bring together a group from both the legal and the open source worlds to help crack this nut.

The idea for Law.Gov seems to be getting a good reception in Washington, D.C. Senator Lieberman, writing on behalf of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the committee responsible for the E-Government Act, has already accepted our request to submit our report to the Committee. Additional formal requests to submit the completed report are outstanding.

Law.Gov is a big challenge for the legal world, and some of the best thinkers in that world have joined us as co-conveners. But, this is also a challenge for the open source world. We’d like to submit such a convincing set of technical specs that there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that it is possible to do this. There are some technical challenges and missing pieces as well, such as the pressing need for an open source redaction toolkit to sit on top of OCR packages such as Tesseract. There are challenges for librarians as well, such as compiling a full listing of all materials that should be in the repository.

Law.Gov is an outgrowth of 3 years of work we’ve done at Public.Resource.Org along with our numerous colleagues in the open law movement across the country. There have been a series of piecemeal successes which have demonstrated that there is a demand and a need for more legal information to be more broadly available. I’m hopeful now that a truly national movement may have coalesced and that there is at least a chance we can bring this across the finish line and create a new function inside of government, the publication of America’s operating system on an open source platform.

The factor that made this coalesce was the recent Government 2.0 Summit put on by Tim O’Reilly. I gave a talk at that summit about the need to put primary legal materials on-line, and it was gratifying to hear the Deputy CTO of the United States, in his closing keynote, highlight that as one of the issues which he thought the White House should help make real through their “moral authority and convening power.” The Government 2.0 Summit was also an example of convening power, and I was very pleased that it was more than yet another conference about open government, it was a forum that brought together people interested in creating real change. Tim O’Reilly, as the Convener-in-Chief, should be congratulated, and I’m hoping that future Summits lead to even more concrete results.

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  • Man it takes a long time to push a changelist through, though.

  • It would be nice to have an accurate, digitally-signed law resource on the web. Nicer, though, would be to have laws that are not obviously unconstitutional. The First Amendment’s “Congress shall make no law”, the Second’s “shall not be infringed”, the Fourth’s “shall not be violated”, the sixth’s “speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury”, and the entire idea of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments are now just legal jokes. Until the “law” is brought back into alignment with the obvious meaning of the Constitution, it no longer matters. The rule of law is dead in America.

  • Great analogy Carl and one that I’ve used in the past. Here are few other metaphors for your consideration:

    – If the law is our OS, it hasn’t been upgraded in a while. It has been patched quite a few times, though.

    – There are a lot of programs installed that we haven’t used in years. Let’s uninstall them and get some space and performance back.

    – There are so many conflicting additions/deletions to the law that we need to run a law repair utility and defrag it.

    – It might be a good idea to do a clean install of a newer OS on things like the Tax Code, which have grown overly complex.

    – Our current OS is so complicated to use that only the geeks can do anything with it, and most regular folks can’t get a printer driver installed. We need to get it out of the domain of the “experts” and give the law back to the people.

  • You might want to talk to the people involved in putting New Zealand legislation online,

    The project had a number of challenges,

  • When we (NY-EFF) got the NY state laws put on the Internet in the early ’90s you would have thought, who could possibly object? It’s motherhood and apple pie, and fundamental to the democratic process. Turns out I was wrong, there were vested interests that were paying a premium price for early access to laws via an expensive dialup service.

    None the less, it passed in the dead of the night, the last item of that year’s legislative session thanks to Sheldon Silver.

    I think having the information vetted for accuracy and digitally signed is a great idea.

  • Re Bill,

    The Constitution and Bill of Rights are essentially legal documents, inheriting much of the legal complexity of the British Common Law system. The fact that your reading of the Constitution and your understanding of the state of law in the United States don’t mesh together doesn’t make rule of law dead here. Some of the things you mention are areas of active reasonable disagreement between legal scholars, some are not. I’m sure you can dig a bit and see why our legal system doesn’t resolve down to what you might consider a plain reading of the Constitution/Bill of Rights.

  • Michael

    Posting all legal information on the internet is a good idea ideologically, but not practically.

    Ideologically, everyone should be able to look up all legal and legislative materials so they can figure out what the law is.

    However, practically, this service doesn’t seem like it will be very beneficial. Who will take the time to parse the hundreds of thousands of statutes, opinions, and legislative materials? Perhaps curious citizens and lawyers. But there is better research material for average citizens (like treatises and commercial outlines) there are better services for lawyers (lexis, westlaw).

    In short, this is a nice idea, but I do not see how it will be very useful.

    This service is not terribly helpful to lawyers because to search the law effectively you need

    will only help lawyers and the occasional curious citizen.

  • Clay Shirky

    “Who will take the time to parse the hundreds of thousands of statutes, opinions, and legislative materials?”


    Who will take the time to make the millions of tiny changes needed to create a whole operating system, where there is better work from professional companies like Microsoft?

    Who will take the time to make millions of tiny contributions to a shared reference work, where there are better services like Encyclopedia Britannica?

    Who will take the time to go through thousands of pages of documents about the U.S. Attorney firings, when there are professional news agencies like the Washington Post.

    If you apply your logic universally, Michael, the 21st century is going to be a very disorienting time for you…

  • Sounds like a good place to do something like and kill off Copyrighted references like Westlaw.

    I’ll go sign up now!

  • This sounds similar to the demonstration/prototype I’m trying to build at We’re also looking for interested subject matter experts and developers to help with this effort and we have a WikiSpace for further discussion at My thought is that open source software efforts for US Federal legislation could be re-used for the development of similar functionality for other jurisdictions (e.g., Thanks,


  • Michael and Clay: I think that you misunderstand if you think that LAW.GOV is trying to compete with treatises, law reviews and other form of secondary materials. They are entirely separate from the publication of primary materials, but equal in importance for researchers. What LAW.GOV can do (at least it is my hope that it can) is free us from having to pay secondary-material-prices for primary materials that are, by all rights, free!

    Imagine paying “Wexis” for access to treatises, digests and case verification tools, but using free ones to actually read the cases. In my humble opinion, this is the perfect division of labor. It irks me to pay premiums for West versions of cases, when cases, statutes or regulations can be available from courts, legislatures and agencies are just as good as the real thing…. (wait, they are the real thing….!)

  • jake warner

    Most law that affects most people is state law-divorce,land-lord tenant, guardianship, probate etc. Making all of this easily available while translating legal gobbledygook into plain English would be a truly democracy enhancing task. But just making federal statutes, cases and regs. more available will primarily benefit lawyers. This is no bad thing in itself, but hardly the best foundation for using the internet to create a fairer and more accessible legal system.

  • Hi Jake –

    You should look at the page again. It says primary legal materials of the United States, not primary legal materials of the federal government. But, you have to start someplace, and as a strategic choice, we decided to aim this report at the feds. But, just federal wouldn’t be much of a system in our federalist society.


  • Free SCV

    I’ll certainly add this to my links. A step in the right direction but I agree /w fellow posters, needs a good format of old outdated laws on the books but not serving society.

    Hopefully a daily vote from 330 million Americans will update what SHOULD BE law (based upon stats vs what Senators vote in)

    Also, PROPOSED law BEFORE it goes into effect would be a blessing. Why reform when it can be done right the first time?

    Free SCV

  • Rafael

    Excellently written article, if all bloggers offered the same content as you, the internet would be a much better place. Please keep it up! BTW, there is an interview in mp3 on this topic at web mp3 source . It might be useful for those who are concrened about this thing. Enjoy!