Is it possible to steal a free good? Ask a lawyer. She’ll look it up, probably in federal court records.
Now, our federal courts use a not-very-user-friendly database system, known as PACER, for distributing public records. These records are the work product of democracy. Federal law prohibits copyrighting the information, making it public property. But the PACER system nevertheless requires lawyers and others who want to access court decisions to plunk out eight cents per page to get them.
Worse than this, the database isn’t keyword searchable.
Enter the geeks.
In a free market, a potential demand meets supply by the entrepreneurial minded. In this case, it’s just the freedom-minded, the transparency-minded. Some Harvard and Princeton affiliated computer whizzes developed a new tool or two to retrieve these documents little pieces at a time, planning to place them in a truly searchable system.
And then the courts opened the records to law libraries without charge, and one hacker wrote a PERL script and started downloading the whole database, in huge, streaming chunks.
Half a month later someone noticed. Egads, someone was stealing free information!
The FBI investigated, started following the infiltrator.
So, what do you do when someone steals public information? Exactly what the FBI determined, in the end.
Yes, sometimes “nothing” is the proper response.
This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.