The Law As Data Capital

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 1.06.18 PMHarvard Law School and Ravel Law, a startup, are digitizing Harvard’s complete collection of US case law going back to 1647 . That’s 43,000 volumes, totaling about 40 million pages.

This new trove of data capital costs millions to create. It will be free to search online, but analysis of the data can only be had for a fee. There’s a big lesson in data capital here: different uses of the same data can command different prices.

Try a search for “privacy” (pictured above). You get all the rulings that mention privacy and a visual guide to their relationships over time and by citation. This use is free.

Now imagine that you’re a lawyer about to argue a case pertaining to privacy in front of a specific judge. You’d like to know which of these rulings the judge has cited, how they figure into the judge’s own rulings, and how he or she compares to other judges on this issue. That analysis is a different end-product from simple search results and you’ll have to pay for it.

Because every piece of data is non-rivalrous (it can be used in many searches and analyses simultaneously) it can be freely available in one way and available for a fee in another.

Ravel’s business plan reveals yet another aspect of data capital. After eight years, the entire database will be available to anyone for any analysis. How will the company stay in business?

By that point, Ravel should have been able to create new data by observing how the case law data was searched and analyzed. If this unique stock of data capital belongs to Ravel alone, it can create new digital services that attorneys can only get from them, maintaining a competitive advantage.