Thinking of Aaron: An Update
January 11, 2014
It's been a year since Aaron Swartz died at the hands of federal prosecutors. This web site exists in its current form directly because of Aaron's work on PACER, conducted in tandem with Steve Schultze, Harlan Yu, and Carl Malamud, who continue to do impressive and amazing work. Docket ID numbers 1 through 716,055 on PlainSite are available specifically because of Aaron, Stephen, Harlan, and Carl's careful efforts. And even more importantly, their making those files available enabled us to build what is now the most sophisticated universal docketing system on the internet, which will soon make over 10 million dockets and/or legal opinions, linked to nearly 100 million documents and docket entries, freely available and accessible to the public. That's a big deal.
PlainSite is a universal docketing system, and not just another off-the-shelf docketing system, because with Aaron in mind we built it to handle data from all across government—not just data from PACER. Were Aaron alive, he would not have wanted to stop there. And we don't either. So it seems only appropriate to raise a few issues, on this sad but important day, that might have made Aaron smile.
While keeping in mind the importance of information about the federal courts, we've been working hard to expand into new and related fields. Our two major projects for late 2013 going into 2014 were tackling what came to be known as CCMS, the California Case Management System, and the patent side of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
CCMS reportedly cost the State of California $575 million, for which taxpayers received basically nothing. The last iteration of the project, known as v4, was so unbelievably complex thanks to the efforts of numerous management consultants, that it ended up being shut down once cost estimates began to exceed $1.9 billion. Now, two of California's counties use a tiny part of the system, which is forever crippled. That leaves fifty-six counties with nothing. To make up for the loss, several have began implementing their own systems, or have made do with the pathetic systems that were already in place. Twenty-seven counties have no publicly-available docketing system at all. Those Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that have already been issued by various counties all offer to pay vendors $0.00. Instead, the public is expected to pay, usually on the order of $10 to $50 per document filed. Some of these RFPs were never actually made available to the public and rushed through to approval in weeks, almost certainly in violation of California law. The California State Auditor has noticed.
We began working on the CCMS problem of uniting California's counties by starting with the easiest systems first. Within about two months, we imported over three quarters of a million dockets from six counties, starting with the County of San Francisco. We then added the Counties of Contra Costa, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz, which use different versions of the same docketing system. We'll have close to one million dockets imported from these counties soon, all at zero cost to taxpayers or the courts, not to mention that the data will be cross-linked and provided in a far more intuitive manner. So, we started looking for the next-best counties to work on. And that's when we ran into this:
© Copyright 1998 Systems and Computer Technology, Inc. SCT, the SCT logo, and Banner are registered trademarks.
This is the disclaimer that appears here, and here, and here, for the on-line systems of Fresno, Solano and Kings Counties, respectively. Aaron would have surely been outraged had he seen this paragraph, let alone the first lengthy disclaimer that one must agree to before even getting that far.
Apparently, according to this legalese, written by lawyers for a company called SCT, acquired by ACS, acquired by Xerox, the software running the web site "contains trade secrets," which are left...secret. Use of the web site is subject to a confidentiality agreement, which must be...confidential...because it does not appear anywhere. And one may not possess, use, reproduce, distribute, display, or disclose public information from the site, which is supposedly copyrighted, without prior authorization. Of course, all rights are reserved to the software company that made the program.
This is beyond absurd. It's atrocious and insulting. Unmodified public information in the public domain belongs to the public no matter what server it is coming from. Aaron wouldn't have stood for such blatant nonsense, and we won't either. That's why we're sending this to Xerox to demand an answer.
On the patent front, there are fewer nauseating disclaimers, but it's still amazingly difficult to get information out of the USPTO. In an ironic twist, Google hosts a great deal of bulk USPTO data, but in such a way that it doesn't actually appear in the Google index. Google Patents, which is integrated with Google Scholar, is actually sourced from a private company. So Google's efforts, while important and certainly appreciated, still leave some room for improvement.
That's why we're adding every patent application we can find to PlainSite. They'll appear in the same docketing interface that we now use for federal and state courts on every level. And once the search engines catch up, you'll be able to find U.S. patent applications on Google for the first time ever. With one million patent applications from 1978-1993 already in the PlainSite database, we're off to a good start. Thanks to the USPTO's decision to store all documents as images (another technical twist that Aaron may have also appreciated), we'll be providing several terabytes of documents for the world to examine that currently have no directly-accessible URL on the USPTO web site.
Aaron meant a lot to all of us in the legal technology community. One of his greatest attributes, however, was that he was clear on where he stood. We hope to amplify his ideals and spirit this year, next year, and the year after that, by turning the legal system that ultimately destroyed him on its head so that it actually serves the people who pay for it and who need it. We hope you'll join us.