[We’re happy to have Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase, as our guest blogger]

Greg Lambert issued a dire proclamation here the other day: If Law.Gov remains an exercise in Academia . . . It Will Die.  His post noted that there were no government officials in Law.Gov’s initial list of 33 co-convenors, and that their buy-in would be key to moving from principles to action.  Although Greg is almost certainly right about the conclusion, the diagnosis is premature.

First, these are just the signatories to the Law.gov statement of principles, not the full list of supporters.  As Joe Hodnicki and others have pointed out, even though the list of co-convenors includes some very prestigious names, it is much smaller than the list of people supporting the effort.  As a small example, Law.Gov workshop participants included:

Preeta Bansal, General Counsel and Senior Policy Advisor to the Office of Management and Budget
Debra Bowen, California Secretary of State
David Mao, the Deputy Law Librarian of Congress,
Vivek Kundra, The White House Chief Information Officer
Ray Mosley, Director of the Office of the Federal Register
Beth Noveck, Deputy Chief Technology Officer for The White House
Laurence Tribe, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice from the Department of Justice
Paul Verkuil, the Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States
Michael Wash, Chief Information Officer of the Government Printing Office

Although many of these participants spoke for themselves and not their respective agencies, the process of winning buy-in from key government officials is well under way.

Second, although buy-in is key, courts and government officials will likely be later-adopters.  And that’s okay.

If you look at the history of liberating government data, many times (but not always) it’s private industry and entrepreneurial individuals who move first and show the government what’s possible.  Then enlightened individuals within the government re-structure their data feeds or their own sites to make the jobs of entrepreneurs easier (and get some tech cred for their agency at the same time).

One good example of this is the way Carl Malamud worked to put SEC filings online in the 1990s.  It was much easier for him as an individual to put the filings online himself as a proof of concept than it was for the SEC to find the financial and human resources internally to do that work.  Once Carl proved that it was possible, he was able to hand the database and its maintenance off to the SEC (which still successfully runs it today).

Recent examples abound.  Harlan Yu, a grad student at Princeton’s CTIP built FedThread.org, and a small group of developers built govpulse.us, each a cool, innovative way to look at the Federal Register.  So now Ray Mosley, the Director of the Office of the Federal Register, is working closely with both groups and has just launched Federal Register 2.0.  Innovators start the process, but the government can often use their momentum and vision to innovate as well.

The key next steps for Law.Gov will come from entrepreneurs who inventory public law and who build tools that make that law more publically available.  And there is no shortage of innovative personnel here, either in the co-convenors list, the list of participants, or the list of supporters.  When innovators such as Tom Bruce and Peter Martin at LII, Paul Lomio and Erika Wayne at Stanford Law School, Tim Stanley at Justia, the team at Princeton’s CTIP (like Ed Felten, Harlan Yu and Steve Schultze), and maybe some of the more entrepreneurial publishers like our team at Fastcase can agree on standards, we can start organizing parts of the collection, and opening them up online.  (By the way, there’s a lot of firepower in that paragraph, folks.)

Heck, even traditional publishers have a part to play.  LexisNexis participated in many of the Law.Gov workshops, including CEO Mike Walsh.  Imagine the impact LexisNexis could have in this effort by, for example, disclaiming copyright in state statutes for the eight-or-so states where they claim it.  (Don’t be surprised if the traditional publishers get involved. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, better access to public law should be market-enhancing for existing publishers.)  This is a case where private industry involvement early on can be even more influential than the involvement of some state governments.

So although it’s correct to note that the effort will need buy-in from the government, that buy-in might not be as necessary at this stage.  Now is the time for smart people in the open government movement, law schools, law libraries, state bar associations, and law firms to inventory the state of our public law.  Now is the time for innovators to begin publishing, repurposing, and mashing up government data in new and interesting ways.  In the next stages, I’m confident that the smart people at GPO, The White House, the Law Library of Congress, in state courts, legislatures, and elsewhere, will pick up the ball and run with it.

As Greg points out, the Law.Gov statement of principles is a good start that needs buy-in from the government.  Although I’m not surprised that government officials aren’t early signatories, I will be very surprised if we don’t see a lot of innovation (private, then public) in the Law.Gov movement.