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Ed Walters love to mention that information and data can be ‘elequent.’ The ideas behind the eloquence is finding innovative ways of collecting, indexing, searching, recalling, and interfacing with the information in a way that captures the attention of the user, and gives them the ability to take action based on that interaction. It might sound like a lot of buzz-words, but when you think about it, the reason we conduct legal research is to obtain a result that allows us to take action, or advise others on what they should do next.

As I was watching Ed Walters retweet a number of messages today on the issue of alternatives to Lexis and Westlaw driving legal information to commodity status, there was a comment from The Raveller (@ravellaw) that caught my attention.  “The trend isn’t commoditization of research, it’s the reinvention of it.”

First off… let’s look at the definition of commoditization:
1:  commodify; specifically:  to render (a good or service) widely available and interchangeable with one provided by another company
2:  to affect (as a brand or a market) by commoditizing goods or services <fierce competition threatened to commoditize prices>

In this case, we tend to think of legal information as the products that our courts, legislatures, and administrative offices produce that guide our society on issues ranging from basic rights and wrongs, to how we conduct business in a uniform way. In the researcher’s world, we tend to think of it as primary law materials.

The comment from The Raveller on reinvention versus commoditization could be interpreted a couple of ways. First, have we already tipped the scale toward primary law being a commodity? Second, does it not matter that the massive primary law pool of information become a commodity in order for other vendors to create inventive ways of presenting the information? Can you get to this second option without first achieving commodity status? I sent a tweet back out to The Reveller and Ed Walters asking.

Ed responded with “Data — esp. primary law — should be (is?) a commodity. Software to make sense of it will be very competitive.”
David Houlihan answered with “Primary law is effectively a commodity. Access was the differentiator, but eroding fast.”

Having just gotten off of an hour and a half phone call on BigData, my brain was buzzing with possibilities of what new technologies, and different approaches to raw information like primary law could bring to the legal research community. We have thought of primary law very linearly for centuries. We are just now coming to grips with the possibilities that a non-linear, even chaotic, approach might unveil the hidden values buried in the raw data, simply because we’d never thought to approach the information that way. Much like technologies have accomplished in the electronic discovery industry.

I think that eventually someone will take the billions of dollars spent on e-discovery technologies and predictive coding, and will turn its focus on massive amounts of information like primary law and discover ways of retrieving actionable information that we never thought possible. Who knows… perhaps there will eventually be products spun out of the NSA that will have commercial use when it comes to primary law? Or, perhaps there is some kid in his or her parent’s garage right now working on the next great process that will take us in a way that no one predicted in 2014. It is very exciting to think about all the possibilities.

So back to my question of reinvention without commodity status. Does commodity status drive invention, or does invention drive commodity status? I think there are arguments for both sides, but I’d say that we’ve probably hit a tipping point where reinvention and the promise of more elequent methods of making primary law into something new and unique and useful in unexpected ways will drive whatever information has not slipped into commodity status into that category very soon.