To paraphrase rock critic Jon Landau, I have seen the future of Google and it is Westlaw Next. On Thursday, I attended a training session on Westlaw’s new legal research interface. Westlaw, LexisNexis and Bloomberg are all in the process of revamping their research tools building on the structure and algorithms of Google’s search engine. The Westlaw Next product is very impressive. No more Boolean searching. Instead all searching is done without connectors like on Google. Likewise, the search tool is intelligent in that is feeds back all searches back into the system thus prioritizing information based on hits and downloads. No more database navigation. Everything is searched as one and then all relevant material is broken down into case law, statutes, and secondary information. Google Scholar already provides case law including Supreme Court cases back to 1791 for free, but it is bare bones in that Google just provides the pure text. Westlaw and other legal search engines provide the ability to check the validity of a case, to make notations on a case, and to save data to structured folders. All for a price, and a hefty one at that.
And that I fear is the future of Google. The shift from a Google Scholar pricing platform to a Westlaw Next platform. What is going to have to occur is a transformation in the attitude towards the value of information. Currently on the internet, information is considered free. Google makes its money on advertising. Of course this is not the case in the legal profession where a culture has developed that legal information costs money (which is of course billed back to the client).
As we move to an information economy, a pricing structure will be developed for accessing information. Legal databases, like Westlaw Next, provide the pricing structure just as Google provides the organization and the algorithms. Interestingly, West and its parent companies, own the rights to much of the legal material in its databases. The hard copy publishing arm of West provides the foundations for the electronic information. Google’s Settlement Agreement, should it get approved, would provide the same access to all matter of copyrighted material from poetry to philosophy to literature. The legal research industry is a multi-billion dollar market. Surely, the scanning rights to upwards of 30 million titles is worth more than $125 million dollars. The applications and revenues that could be generated from those scans are enormous.
As the public and institutional libraries slowly die due to lack of funding, the time will be ripe for a private corporation, like Google, to step in and fill in the gap. I would suspect that a federally funded project to digitize the Library of Congress and develop a Google interface for public use would be too expensive to develop and would meet the same reception as the Health Care Plan. So that leaves, Google or a similar corporation. How long before Google’s pricing scheme through advertising will give way to a pricing structure based on the legal model. A fee for each search, for each download, or a monthly charge for unlimited access? Unlike the music of Bruce Springsteen, the future does not sound so good to me, which is why I am building my own reality studio.