Skip to content

About

RECAP is a project of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. It is one of several projects that harness the power of the web to increase government transparency. Some of the driving principles behind the project can be found in the recent paper, Government Data and the Invisible Hand. RECAP was created by Harlan Yu, Steve Schultze, and Timothy B. Lee. Dhruv Kapadia is also a member of the RECAP development team. The project is led by Prof. Ed Felten. You can contact us at info@recapthelaw.org.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is PACER?
PACER stands for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records.” It is the website the federal judiciary uses to make public records available to the general public. You can use PACER to access legal documents relating to thousands of federal court cases.

Who uses PACER?
Although PACER is officially available to the general public, it is mostly used by practicing attorneys. The site is difficult for non-lawyers to navigate, and it has a “paywall” that requires users to pay significant fees for the documents they download from PACER.

What does RECAP do?
RECAP is an extension (or “add on”) for the Firefox web browser that improves the PACER experience while helping PACER users build a free and open repository of public court records. RECAP users automatically donate the documents they purchase from PACER into a public repository hosted by the Internet Archive. And RECAP saves users money by alerting them when a document they are searching for is already available from this repository. RECAP also makes other enhancements to the PACER experience, including more user-friendly file names.

Should I install RECAP if I’m not a user of PACER? Will installing RECAP affect my use of other websites?
No. RECAP only becomes active when you are accessing PACER. RECAP automatically de-activates itself when you’re browsing non-PACER websites. Therefore, non-PACER users won’t benefit from installing RECAP.

Can I browse or search the archive directly, or do I need to use PACER to see RECAP files?
We’ve built an experimental interface to browse the recap archive. You can access it by clicking the ‘Archive’ link at the top of the page, or by visiting http://archive.recapthelaw.org/. Not all information contained within the archive is searchable. We are being very conservative about what is browseable/searchable because of ongoing privacy concerns related to attorneys who failed to redact personal information. We are working on (better) auto-detection mechanisms, and as we get more comfortable with those as well as the Courts’ increased efforts to educate attorneys, we may make more of the collection directly searchable and browseable. Obviously, the archive would be more useful with more sophisticated search tools, so we want to get there as soon as possible, but in a responsible way that balances it with privacy concerns. (More information)

RECAP and PACER

Is RECAP affiliated with PACER?
RECAP is an independent project of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. The project is in not affiliated with or endorsed by the PACER system or the United States judiciary.

Will RECAP interfere with my use of PACER?
RECAP is designed to improve your PACER experience without getting in your way. To use RECAP, you simply log into PACER and use it as you ordinarily would. In fact, from the perspective of PACER’s servers, a user with RECAP installed behaves exactly like any other PACER user. The only difference is that the RECAP extension simultaneously communicates with the RECAP web server, uploading purchased documents and checking for documents available for free download. When a document is available for download, RECAP puts a small, distinctive icon next to the official PACER link. That means users always have a choice between downloading the free RECAP version (if one is available) or paying for the PACER version.

How do I know that the documents provided by RECAP are genuine?
Unfortunately, you don’t. We rely on RECAP users to donate documents to the repository. If the courts used a technology called digital signatures, we would be able to independently verify the authenticity of documents submitted to us by users. But so far the courts have not done this, so we have no foolproof way to detect forgeries. We believe that all the documents currently in RECAP are genuine, and we’re going to do our best to keep it that way. But we can’t guarantee that vandalism or technical glitches won’t cause problems in the future. So if you need a guarantee that a document is genuine, we recommend you pay for the PACER version. And if you spot a problem with a RECAP document, please report it to us via email.

Privacy and Security

Why do I need to click the “allow” button to trust www.recapthelaw.org when installing the extension?
Unfortunately, Firefox provides no way for independent developers of extensions to prove their authenticity. Instead, we can simply show you that the software is coming from us and invite the geeks to take a look at our code (the extension is open source). Even big companies like Google face this problem. Given that much of our research is focused on making computing more secure, you can probably trust us, but it’s your call.

Sometimes, when I view a PACER docket with RECAP enabled, I see the warning “Contains unauthenticated content” in the lower-right hand corner of my browser window (where the “padlock” icon would normally be). Should I be concerned?
You should always be concerned about security warnings displayed by your browser. However, in this case, we believe the problem is a known bug in the way some previous versions of Firefox handled images on encrypted pages. Users seeing this message should download the latest version of Firefox, which should cause the message to go away.

Why am I not getting any notifications that RECAP is uploading documents, even though the RECAP icon is blue?
You must enable the “display notifications” option in RECAP preferences. If it’s still not working and you are using Mac OS X, you may need to install Growl.

Is any of my personal information disclosed as a result of using RECAP?
Refer to our Privacy Policy.

Can I disable Recap?
If you wish to briefly disable RECAP without restarting Firefox, just check the “Deactivate RECAP” checkbox in RECAP preferences.

Does Recap upload files if I am an attorney using ECF?
Sometimes. If you are an attorney of record, you will have your own “ECF” login. When you use this account (rather than a standard PACER account), you have the ability to see more detailed information about your cases and file documents. If you are only logged into ECF, RECAP will not activate and will not upload any documents at all. If you are logged into both ECF and PACER systems, RECAP will upload PACER documents that you access from within the ECF system. At no time will RECAP ever upload any information that is not already publicly accessible. (More Information)

Public Records

What is RECAP doing to guard against inadvertent disclosure of public records containing private information?
This is a problem we take very seriously. Under the rules of the federal courts, each party to a case is responsible for redacting personally-identifiable information from its own documents, and courthouse personnel are responsible for redacting documents produced directly by the courts. So in theory, there shouldn’t be any sensitive personal information in PACER. Unfortunately, these rules are not always enforced, and inappropriate information sometimes leaks out into the public version of court documents.

Ideally, the courts would do a better job of enforcing these rules. But until that happens, we are taking three steps to cope with the problem:

  • At our request, the Internet Archive has disallowed search engine indexing of the documents we submit. (This may be changed in the future if we develop better ways of addressing privacy concerns.)
  • The RECAP servers automatically scan all submitted documents for Social Security numbers before they are uploaded to the Internet Archive. Any document in which we detect such information is automatically suppressed.
  • We’re relying on RECAP users to report privacy problems. Please email us if you find a document in the repository that contains inappropriate personal information. Your feedback will not only allow us to suppress the document you found; it will also help us improve our automated filters so that fewer problem documents slip through in the future.

“Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government”
17 U.S.C. 105

Is sharing court documents a violation of copyright law?
The court-created documents provided by PACER are works of the federal government, and under copyright law, are automatically placed in the public domain and may be shared without legal restriction. The question is a little bit more complicated for documents filed by third parties, so we asked a prominent legal scholar about it. He told us that such documents may be under copyright, but he thought redistributing copyrighted court documents was legal under copyright’s fair use doctrine. However, there is very little caselaw in this area, so it’s impossible to be sure. We certainly believe citizens ought to have the freedom to share public court documents, and we hope RECAP users will help to establish that precedent.

The PACER “policies and procedures” prohibits “any attempt to collect data from PACER in a manner which avoids billing.” Is this what RECAP is designed to do?
Absolutely not. PACER charges users for the documents they download from PACER. RECAP users pay for every document they download from PACER, just like any other user. RECAP simply gives users a second option: to easily share documents directly with one another, as they’re permitted to do under copyright law. When a user downloads a RECAP document, the document comes directly from the Internet Archive’s web server; the process imposes no additional load on PACER’s web servers.

Technical Questions

What are the system requirements for using RECAP?
RECAP is an extension (or “add-on”) for the Mozilla Firefox web browser. It requires Firefox version 3.0.4 or later, and works with Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. We have no current plans to support other browsers. However, the code is open source, and we would love to hear from experienced developers interested in porting the code to another browser.

Is RECAP free software?
The RECAP Firefox extension is licensed under version 3 of the GNU General Public License. We have no plans to release the code for the RECAP server.

How do I report a bug or make a feature suggestion?
At the moment, we don’t have a formal bug-tracking infrastructure, but if you email us we’ll get back to you promptly.