For years, Bloomberg Law has shared its immense collection of PACER data with academic researchers in subscribing institutions. Bloomberg Law has done so as a standard feature of its subscription service, and would even go purchase documents from PACER if a researcher so requested it. As the director of Free Law Project I have talked to numerous researchers that used this system as a backbone of their legal research. From a researcher’s perspective it was great: Your institution paid an annual fee and in exchange you had access to the PACER information you needed.

Well, it appears those days are coming to an end. Over the past several days, we’ve heard from numerous sources that Bloomberg Law is finally imposing restrictions on how much academics can pull from their system. The restrictions we’ve heard from our sources are:

  1. Individual users can only trigger the purchase of $1,500 worth of PACER content per year.

  2. At most 30% of an institution’s Bloomberg Law subscription fees can be used to purchase PACER data.

In other words, there’s a per-user cap and a per-institution cap.

Putting these numbers in context is difficult. How many documents does $1,500 buy you, and how much money is 30% of an institution’s annual subscription fee? We don’t have much insight into the latter (send us a note if you can share), but based on our own analysis, PACER PDFs tend to be about seven pages long. At a dime per page, this is in the ballpark of about 2,150 PDFs. Is that a major limitation for a professional legal researcher? You bet.

We have to admit though, that we sympathize with Bloomberg Law — a bit! Academics are hungry for data and a couple of research assistants can easily run up a thousand dollar PACER bill day after day for weeks on end. One case in PACER can cost as much as a new Honda Civic, and we’ve heard there are researchers at times that use Bloomberg Law to purchase over $100,000-worth of content. Bloomberg Law suffers under the same federal monopoly on public court documents that we do and while their pockets are much deeper than ours, these fees go up fast. Eventually somebody was going to look at the numbers.

So what are researchers to do?

  1. Keep using Bloomberg Law; Spread the fees around. Team up with colleagues to use their $1,500 cap as well as your own, and team up with other schools to spread the load there too. Sure, could work, but not exactly what anybody signed up for.

  2. Try fee waivers. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has a system in place that researchers can use to get access to this data. Academics can go that route, get free access to the data, and then work with an organization like ours to automate downloading and analyzing the PACER data.

    The major problem with this approach is that fee waivers almost always ban redistribution. While we can usually work with that, it spoils reproducibility of your work. Further, the fee waiver system itself is difficult: Judges can be arbitrary, doing it across more than a few jurisdictions requires a lot of careful tracking, and fee waiver applications require that you constrain your research.

  3. Get grant money. If researchers have enough grant money, they can work with an organization like ours to actually purchase the data from PACER. This maintains reproducibility, adds useful information to the public commons, and is generally the right way to go.

    On the other hand, rare is the foundation that is excited about paying PACER fees and these fees can be big. It’s easy to spend $50,000 downloading dockets and PDFs from PACER. It’s rare, but there are organizations that support this kind of important research.

If you can’t read between the lines, I’m frustrated about this change. It’s reasonable and unsurprising but nevertheless unfortunate that Bloomberg Law is making this change.

The bigger picture is that the federal government has a monopoly on public court documents that leaves all of us — even Bloomberg Law — impoverished. You know you have a problem when a multi-billion-dollar multi-national corporation can’t afford the PACER fees that a few academics run up every year. You know you have a problem when you have a government-granted monopoly on public court documents blocking realistic access to studying the legal system — this, despite the obvious benefit the public and the judiciary itself would gain from their work.

We expect Bloomberg Law to do whatever it thinks is best for its business, but we expect our government-run PACER system to do better. PACER’s fee structure is an unnecessary barrier to academic research and needs reform.