Among computer programming geeks, the “open source” movement is hot. But can the geeks’ group approach to writing software code also work for legal code? Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society is trying to find out. The center has created an “Openlaw” Web site (, where cases are developed the same way that an international band of volunteer computer programmers built the free operating system (and Windows alternative) Linux: Post an idea on the Web, and let others improve upon it. The site invites anyone with a computer to work interactively on real-life pro bono cases.

The project is the brainchild of Harvard Law tech gurus Lawrence Lessig, Charles Nesson, and Jonathan Zittrain. The center’s first case is a constitutional challenge to the new law that extends copyright protection by 20 years. To put together a summary judgment brief, the center relied on postings from about two-dozen legal scholars, students, and attorneys on copyright history and law. The center then posted an outline of the brief for commentary. But when it came time to write a final draft, Lessig practiced law the old-fashioned way. “He locked himself in a room and pounded it out,” said Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center.

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