The first court ruling to come out of a fledgling Web site’s battle with Lexis, the nation’s pioneer in electronic legal publishing, could spell trouble for the upstart’s efforts to provide the nation’s case law free over the Internet.

On April 6, New York Southern District Judge Jed S. Rakoff ordered Lexis’ contract and fraud claims against newcomer Jurisline.com returned to state court. The ruling appears to strip the Web site of its main defense: that the case law material — admittedly taken from Lexis’ CD-ROMs — made available on the Web is defensible because court opinions are in the “public domain” and are not protected under federal copyright law.

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