For those who haven’t seen it yet, Google recently launched Google Scholar. This is huge for a number of reasons.
Google Scholar is a research search tool designed specifically for scholarly research, including legal research. Although it does not offer everything that the giant, expensive, legal search providers have, it looks like it has a lot of very useful tools. Check out the “How Cited” links (example), the reporter pagation in the left hand margin (example), and, for your jurisdiction specific searches, the advanced search options.
In addition to being a very useful legal tool, Google Scholar is worth attention here because it involves a number of intellectual property issues. In the United States, case law is part of the public domain. The inclusion of court opinions therefore poses no IP problems. However, Google Scholar also includes access to journal articles, books and such copyrighted materials.
Google Scholar seems to balance the access to these materials and protection of the copyright in a few different ways. For some documents, Google Scholar provides a link to an outside paid service such as HeinOnline, JSTOR and even Lexis and Westlaw (links are to examples.) These services provide you a snippet of the item and offer you ways to view the entire document. Local libraries may provide free access to some of these databases and Google Scholar has a mechanism to help users find libraries with access. Basically, in these cases, Google has skirted the potential copyright issues by linking to already existing services. These services have already worked out the copyright licensing logistics for their resources. Google just points the users to the resources and the service takes it from there.
For full text articles are also available from non-paid sites. It appears that in these cases the articles are already available online from journal sites, publishers, and university sites (links are to examples). Google again just points the users to the article. In many cases, these links are to pdfs, so the user may not realize what site is providing the materials. Some sites may not like this, or may have other reasons for desiring that their material not be included in the Google Scholar searches. Google offers them the option of having their materials removed.
The biggest area of copyright contention in which Google Scholar seems to be involved is with regards to materials not accessible via any third party site, either paid or free. These materials, when available, are available through Google Books. While Google is still working through the copyright muck there, Google Scholar has done a good job of utilizing resources that are already available.
Google Scholar may be a new competitor for some of the expensive, traditional, legal research tools, but at its core it is really just a focused version of what Google does best, search. Luckily for all the users out there, most of the copyright issues surrounding searching and linking have already been worked out.