"Nota Bene" means "note this well" or "take particular notice." We at the O'Quinn Law Library will be posting tips on legal research techniques and resources, developments in the world of legal information, happenings at the Law Library, and legal news reports that deserve your particular attention. We look forward to sharing our thoughts and findings and to hearing from you.

N.B: Make a note to visit "Nota Bene" regularly.

-Spencer L. Simons, former Director, O'Quinn Law Library and Associate Professor of Law

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Picture of Legal Research – Ravel

There is a new player in the electronic legal research world; its name is Ravel and it wants to do for legal research what television did for radio: make it visual.

Ravel is the brain-child of a group of recent Stanford Law graduates who wanted to come up with a new way of doing legal research that would be “radically easier, faster, and more intuitive.”  While the platform is more visually striking than the text heavy appearances of the more traditional platforms Ravel may not yet be a complete game-changer.  Let’s take a look.  

The site has the familiar Google minimalist aesthetic look and right away lets you know that the cool kids who use Google Chrome are preferred, although it seemed to work fine with my stodgy old Firefox browser worked fine. Coverage is limited to only U.S. Supreme Court and all Federal Circuit court cases included. There are no Federal District court or any state court cases.  The developers state that “we are aggressively expanding the coverage of our case opinion database,” but they don’t say what they are expanding to. In an interview with founder Daniel Lewis he states that statutes will be added, but says nothing about state court opinions or administrative law materials.  The product is still in beta mode so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. At present this is exclusively a federal case finding tool. Its advance search merely allows the researcher to limit the keyword search to particular federal jurisdictions. 

I did a few very simple and limited searches using Ravel that centered around the subject of my previous post, PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin. I searched in the U.S. Supreme Court database using the term “golf”.  The results screen is divided into a narrow right-hand pane with the list of cases with keywords highlighted. The center pane consists of two graphs. A smaller graph at the bottom charts the mentions of the key term over time with hills and valleys indicating how much or how little the search term was used. The larger graph that occupies most of the screen consists of circles. Large circles represent “more important cases based on their citation network.” Each circle has a color: Red indicates a case has not been cited for at least 10 years, Blue lines link cases that a case is cited by, Green lines show cases that a case cites to. At the top of the main pane there are limiters titled; Ravel, Relevance, Court, and Cluster. Ravel is the default setting. Relevance raises more relevant cases to the top of the graph. Court indicates which court decided the case, and Cluster seems to do just that—cluster all the cases together, at least that is what it appeared to do. For what it’s worth Martin was the 13th case in the results list and by looking at its circle size it is not the most important golf case decided by the Supreme Court. 

I changed the search to encompass all the available jurisdictions and the search returned a total of 2085 cases with the top 75 cases being displayed. I changed the search again to “golf” and “disability” and the Martin case grew to a large circle (relevant cases have larger circles).  By narrowing my search with the additional term the significance of the Martin case grew. 

By clicking on the case in the right-hand pane you get a completely new screen with the text of the case in the center, page numbers on the far left, and another graph in the upper right corner. The opinion itself provides all the expected citations and can be printed in PDF format.  If you create an account you are allowed to make annotations on a case which will be saved, which is always a handy thing. The graph in the upper right corner is titled “Opinions Citing PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin”. This graph has years along the bottom and numbers on the side and a slider that lets you move from year to year. As the slider passes over a year you get the number of cases that cited to your main case for that year along with links to those cases below the graph. 

What the Ravel group has come up with is a great beginning of a case research tool. Graphically the site is interesting; rather like Westlaw’s graphic view on steroids (and much more helpful), but it doesn’t possess the depth of Shepard’s.  The graphics are a welcome addition because they do provide the ability to see patterns in cases across courts and make easy connections between cases, but my fear is that students and newer attorneys will rely on the size of the circle rather than the actual language in the case. 

In the interview Lewis states that “in a number of other research spaces where people navigate large amounts of data, including scientific research, finance, and engineering” graphical interfaces are widespread. Perhaps I’m old fashioned but I don’t really consider law in general to be “data” given the nuance and uniqueness of each separate legal opinion.  All of the other fields mentioned strike me as relying on “raw data” that require organization into a discernible pattern. To me law is still, generally, a textual medium, and while graphics certainly has its place, and I for one would welcome it to electronic research, it is not more important than reading each actual relevant case to see what was said. The developers of Ravel will of course say that the prudent attorney will of course read every case, and yes, a prudent attorney will, but the graphics may act as a crutch for the less diligent attorney and that is my fear. In the interview Lewis states that the Ravel group had all become “intimately familiar with the existing legal research tools, and couldn’t help but notice that the interfaces and underlying search technology had failed to keep up not just with the times in general, but with ever increasing amounts of legal information in particular .”  I am sure the armies of programmers at Thomson-Reuters (Westlaw Next), LexisNexis (Lexis Advance), and Bloomberg Law will be quite happy to know that a group of summer associates “intimately familiar” with legal research are ready to tell them how to do their jobs. Those crazy Millennials (shakes head slowly).  

In a world where the big players, Westlaw Next, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg Law, all trumpet their powerful search algorithms, I don’t think that graphics will be enough to make Ravel a real player in the long term. I hope that this ambitious law school project spurs the big boys to add the option of using more graphics in their products. While I am too practical to assume that there exists the “Platonic Ideal” of an electronic legal research platform, Ravel is a nice step forward.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

This Day in Legal History -- PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 61 (2001)

On this date in legal history in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin. While not a landmark case, it is interesting because few sports-related cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Martin was Casey Martin a professional golfer who suffers from Klippel Trenaunay Syndrome. This genetic defect causes abnormal growth of blood cells or the lymphatic system and causes pain and makes it difficult to walk, especially the distances involved in 18 holes of golf. Martin had played college golf at Stanford, where he had been a teammate of Tiger Woods, and wished to play professionally on the PGA tour and wanted to be allowed to ride in a golf cart between holes due to his medical condition. 

The PGA denied Martin’s request and asserted that walking between holes was an integral part of the game and riding in a cart would provide Martin with an unfair advantage. Martin sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The court ruled 7-2 in favor of Martin. Perhaps the most notable result of the case was the finding that walking was not fundamental to golf, thus making a lie out of Mark Twain’s statement about golf being “a good walk spoiled.”  Scalia punctuates his (typically) angry dissent with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut about “everybody was finally equal.” 

Although Casey Martin went all the way to the Supreme Court and won, he has not been as fortunate in his professional golfing career which has been spotty at best. He is currently the head coach of the University of Oregon golf team, and although he qualified for the 2012 U.S. Open, he failed to make the cut.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

State Mobile Apps Catalog

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers recently put together a State Mobile Apps Catalog with information about government apps provided by all 50 states. Currently, it contains over 160 apps in a number of categories such as business and corporate filings, legislatures, professional license search, and tax and payment services. You can choose to view the government apps in each state or view apps by category.

Right now, the available Texas apps are the Texas Driver Handbook, Texas.gov, and TX Senate Business & Commerce. Once you find an app of interest, the catalog provides a short description and a link to the app store where the app can be downloaded.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Touch Tax Mobile App

The Touch Tax Mobile (Tax Deskbook App), by Com-Lab Mobile, provides tax students and attorneys convenient offline access to the entire Internal Revenue Code  as well as all of the Treasury Regulations. The Internal Revenue Bulletins (which have Revenue  Rulings and Procedures, Announcements, and Notices) are available from July 7, 2003, with the option of linking to the PDF copy of each issue from the IRS's website. This app is currently available for Apple and Android devices as well as the Blackberry Playbook tablet with the costs ranging from $0.99 to $5.99, depending on your device. The statutes and regulations are current through April 2012, which is consistent with the selected tax statutes and regs. that are in the supplements required for tax law courses. Users can browse the primary tax sources and use the basic keyword search feature as well as obtain a list of regulations related to particular code sections.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tax Almanacs

Tax almanacs save tax attorneys an enormous amount of time by providing quick practical tax related information in one paperback source. Specifically, they contain tax tables such as those related to 2012 tax rates and earned income tax credit as well as convenient steps for preparing returns, changes in tax statutes and regulations, and an overview and analysis of virtually every tax issue ranging from partnership issues and business expenses to charitable donations. There are annotations to primary sources of tax law such as the code, treasury regulations, case law, and pronouncements as well as references to practice guides such as the Standard Federal Tax Reporter (CCH) and the United State Tax Reporter (RIA).

The library has the following tax almanacs in it's collection, which are updated annually:

Friday, May 10, 2013

Legal Resources to Help You Celebrate ‘International Migratory Bird Day’

Tomorrow, May 11, is International Migratory Bird Day.  In honor of this holiday, Nota Bene is proud to present this collection of resources as a reference when dealing with issues relating to migratory birds, and as a source of legal information to delight and amaze your friends.*

The United States first addressed the state of migratory birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, followed by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929.  Since then, a number of statutes have been passed to further enhance protections for migratory birds.  Updates to statutes and regulations, along with general information about migratory birds, are available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Local birdwatchers already know that Texas is a prime destination for birding.  For those interested in becoming birdwatchers, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has published guides on migratory birds and how to watch them.   

Birdwatchers may not be aware that laws protecting birds cover feathers as well as the birds themselves and their eggs.  Possessing even part of a protected bird is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine, as there is no way to distinguish a naturally shed feather picked up off of the ground from a feather plucked by a poacher.  The only exception is the Eagle Feather Law, which limits the taking of birds, feathers or eggs to persons licensed to use them in limited numbers for display in zoos, scientific research or Native American religious practices.  Other birdwatchers who might want a souvenir should either take a photograph or consider buying a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, a/k/a the Federal Duck Stamp.

For those interested, it is illegal to hunt migratory birds on their holiday: Federal and Texas laws limit how and when one may hunt migratory birds, and no migratory birds are currently in season in Texas.  In honor of International Migratory Bird Day, avid hunters should bag themselves a Duck Stamp instead, since you can’t hunt migratory birds without one.

Have a safe and happy International Migratory Bird Day.

* Warning: not all friends are delighted and amazed by legal information.  Please use responsibly.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Who Owns Superman?

Superman, the Man of Steel, was born in 1938, and has been involved in copyright litigation almost as long.  Mr. Mxyzptlk himself could not have created as convoluted a history of a copyright dispute as the one that involved the rights to the Superman property. 

The Superman character was the brain-child of Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster. Their idea, an alien comes to Earth and has super-powers was a new one at the time.  These two Brainiacs sold the exclusive world-wide rights to Superman to Detective Comics (“DC”) for $130.00 and took employment with DC. Superman debuted in the comic-book format in Action Comics #1. He was an instant hit.

Siegel and Shuster filed their first lawsuit against DC in 1947 alleging that DC was not paying them their fair share of the profits that DC was reaping from the superhero. After trial the “official referee” found that DC had paid valuable consideration for the rights to Superman and the agreement was valid. Soon after the decision came down the parties agreed to a payment to be made to Siegel and Shuster. 

In 1969 Siegel and Shuster again filed suit in anticipation of the expiration of the initial copyright term. They were asserting that they, and not DC, were the owners of the renewal rights to the Superman copyright. In what can hardly be considered a Bizarro ruling, the court once again ruled against Siegel and Shuster stating that the initial grant of rights included the right to the renewal term even though that term had not yet vested. 

In 1975 an article appeared in the New York Times detailing the poverty that Siegel and Shuster were then living in. Not wanting to be portrayed as a company of Lex Luthors, Warner Communications (parent of DC comics) agreed to pay health insurance for both men and to make annual payments to them for the remainder of their lives and that these payments would cease if either Siegel and/or Shuster or their representatives asserted any rights to the Superman copyright. In addition, provision was made for Siegel’s wife.  Warner emphasized that this agreement was voluntary and in consideration for the duo’s past service and present circumstances. Warner later increased the payments and on two occasions paid both men bonuses. In 1985 Warner changed the agreement so that they would pay Siegel’s wife the same benefits they were paying her husband if he predeceased her. Siegel died in 1996 and Warner continued to pay his widow.

The Copyright Act of 1976 changed copyright law in many ways, including extending the copyright term for renewal period and also providing a right to terminate a prior grant of rights made before January 1, 1978 in order to renegotiate these agreements. In 1997 the heirs of Siegel and Shuster filed for termination of all previous agreements (the 1938, 1948, the 1975 agreements). Negotiations continued even after the terminations were to have taken effect in 1999. A proposed settlement in the form of a letter dated October 19, 2001 was passed back and forth and the terms were agreed to, but there was trouble when attempts were made to reduce formalize the final agreement. The heirs asserted that Warner Communications was the equivalent of Darkseid, the heirs fired several sets of lawyers, and the settlement letter was repudiated, and it appeared that no settlement was reached. 

Another lawsuit was filed in 2004. This litigation found the 2001 settlement letter to be non-binding  and the terminations of the prior agreements were valid. This opinion was overturned on appeal.  Further termination notices were sent in 2012 and another lawsuit was filed.

 April 18, 2013 was the Doomsday of the ongoing disputes. In the words of U.S. District Court judge Otis D. Wright II this “litigation of superhero proportions now draws to a close.”  Judge Wright found the October 2001 letter agreement binding on the parties. Under this interpretation, after the filing of the 1997 terminations, the parties negotiated a settlement in which DC was granted all of the Siegel’s rights to all Superman properties. 

Is this really the end?  Judge Wright ends his opinion stating that “to the extent that any party contends any delay in performance or other breach gives rise to any damages, such a claim is properly subject to a separate state-court action for breach of contract.” It almost seems that, like a comic book, we may have to wait for next month’s issue to come out to see how it ends.