1995 – Year 1 for Electronic Publishing

First published May 1995 in Computers and Law (1995, vol. 6, no 1, pp. 6-8). Republished here with slight edits to broken bits.

Writing in 1985, shortly after its demise, David Warlock reported that

Eurolex … had registered some 375 client organisations at the time of its closure, of whom some 200 were paying a minimum commitment subscription. At the same time there is reason to believe that Lexis in Britain, after six years of commercial operation, had less than 50 private solicitors’ practices using the service and less than 30 corporate users. (Computers and Law, December 1985)

Since that time, while Lexis usage has continued to grow, it has clearly not penetrated the legal profession to the extent many (not least the publishers) had expected. For a while, Lexis was keen to advertise how many people had been trained to use it � implicitly the number of actual users was not nearly as impressive.

In the late 80s the other leading legal on-line publisher, Context, developed and expanded its Justis database, and has since also become the leading publisher of CD-ROM titles of UK and EC primary sources. But again, outside of a core group of large firms and company and institutional users, these products are not used widely by the profession.

So far as electronic communications are concerned, many initiatives have been started in the last decade with the aim of becoming the standard electronic communication medium for lawyers, notable amongst them have been Telecom Gold and the Network for Law, Teletex and more recently LIX. Still the critical mass of users needed to justify and sustain such projects was elusive.

Then in June 1994 Legalease’s LINK service was launched, immediately attracting 2,000 individual users. Latest figures are that

we currently have over 4,000 people on the system and the numbers are growing steadily. That breaks down much as you’d expect if you look at the profession’s demographics except we have a higher proportion of in-house lawyers on-line than you might expect and fewer barristers. However, barristers have been catching up at high speed over the last few months. … we are averaging 1,200-1,300 log-ins per day and about 160 connect hours – apparently those figures are astonishing in the on-line industry. (Evan Predavec, Legalease, 23 March 1995)

This after barely six months of commercial operation.

At some point, also in 1994, sufficient connections were achieved to the Internet for it to enter the collective psyche. There are now variously estimated at between 30 and 40 million users connected, of whom a staggering three-quarters are reported to be ‘newbies’ (people connected for less than a year)(Guardian On-Line, 23 March 1995). How many UK lawyers are amongst these we do not know, but it is clear that the current momentum will ensure that within a very short time a large proportion of the profession will be ‘wired’.

So, what’s changed? What happened in 1994 in particular? What is electronic publishing anyway? and most importantly, What’s in it for lawyers?

What’s changed?

One of you boffins out there can probably calculate just what increase in processing power there is between a 1985 8086 with 512K RAM, 10Mb hard disk and DOS 2.x costing around £3,000 (an IBM PC/XT) and a 486 multi-media PC with 8Mb RAM, 500Mb hard disk, DOS 6.2, Windows 3.11, and oodles of bundled applications which can currently be had for £1,500 or less – I would guess of the order of thousands. And on a Which Computer type value for money barometer, we’ve certainly gone way off the top of the scale.

These hardware developments and the accumulated expertise of those who work with computers have enabled a corresponding enormous increase in the usability and productivity of systems software and applications. Foremost amongst these technologies for the publishing world have been the graphical user interface and hypertext. Certainly we appear to be moving ever more rapidly in a virtuous circle where technological development leads to improvements in price, performance and usability, producing an expanding market and profits, which are reinvested in development.

With the advent of ever cheaper computing, a generation has grown up with hands on experience of computing at school, university, in the home and of course at work. A substantial proportion of the population is as comfortable with keyboard and screen as with pen and paper – they no longer need to be sold the technology, either in substance or in concept, as well as the product.

Clearly, technological advancements alone have not been sufficient to develop a market for electronic publishing. But as the market for the technologies has matured, the standards necessary for the development of a mass market for electronic publishing have emerged, some sold into the market, some driven by it, and (the notable exceptions) the product of foresight.

Most of us will recall the relief we felt when we no longer had to decide whether to go for (Phillips’) compact audio cassette or (someone else’s) 8-track cartridge audio tape system, or for Sony’s VHS or a Betamax-compatible VCR. In the latter case, it is generally accepted that the best tape didn’t win, but at least we could stop wasting our money. So too with MS-DOS, generally accepted as not a very good operating system, but now installed in countless millions of PCs world wide.

But it was the late 80s that gave birth to what are now the de facto standards of today’s electronic publishing industry. Prompted by the undeniably superior Macintosh system, Microsoft developed the Windows graphical user interface, finally achieving rough equivalence with the Mac with version 3 in 1993. Fuelled by the demands of the audio marketplace the High Sierra standard for CDs was agreed, its benefits feeding through to the electronic publishing market at the turn of the decade. But it was the publishing industry itself that (with foresight) defined probably the most important standard, certainly for the future of electronic publishing – the Standard Generalised Markup Language (SGML). Originated by Dr Charles Goldfarb, an IBM consultant, SGML was developed and adopted as an international standard in 1986. Much talked about and much misunderstood, SGML remained very much the preserve of technical publishing until only a few years ago. The adoption of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a subset of SGML, as the standard for publishing data on the Worldwide Web (WWW), the backbone of the Internet, has firmly established SGML as the language of electronic publishing today.

So it was that the standards of the late 80s were gradually adopted and, together with the contemporaneous technological and sociological developments, conspired together to create in 1994 a truly universal market for electronic publishing.

What, then, is electronic publishing today?

A flick through my user-friendly slim, paper dictionaries of Current English and Word Origins reveals the following definitions:

  • electronic of or concerned with or using devices in which electrons are conducted through a semi-conductor
  • publish to produce and issue (printed matter) for distribution and sale … etymologically, to make public

From these definitions, we can safely say that electronic publishing precludes the use of paper, and that it is the issuing or distribution of the information that constitutes its publication.

Just to confuse us, for a while in the late 80s the desktop publishing industry hijacked the term ‘electronic publishing’ to its own ends. While it is true that DTP has been of huge importance to the publishing industry (both commercial and private), it is not publishing per se, being concerned primarily with the production rather than the distribution process.

Once we have these electrons dancing to the desired tune, how do we then issue them? Typically the master will reside on a host computer from which it can be distributed, principally, in one of the following ways:

  • on magnetic (floppy) disks
  • on optical disk (CD)
  • on-line

While, in principle, the same information can be delivered using any of these media, each has distinct characteristics which determines its appropriateness as a medium for electronic publishing.

Floppy disk

The overriding benefit of the 3½” High Density DOS formatted floppy disk is that it is readable on virtually every computer manufactured in the last five years (and, of course, many before). Just as we know that all but a small minority can read our book if it is written in English, so we know (simplifying matters a little) that almost all computer users can read our information if it is written onto DOS floppy disk. The floppy disk is also cheap, even in modest bulk of 50 costing less than 40 pence each. However, its capacity is limited – 1.4Mb is roughly equivalent to 400 pages of plain text, less if it is formatted and/or indexed. Even with current compression techniques this is insufficient for a heavyweight information application, but it is more than adequate and quite the most convenient and marketable for small databases or collections of documents such as legal precedents.


The compact disk on the other hand has huge capacity. Offering 600Mb or 200,000 pages of text, a small library can be housed on a single disk. One CD can also be used to host dozens of different applications. This method is commonly adopted for promotional purposes, with demonstration or sampler versions of several publishers’ wares distributed together by a marketing company. Full versions of the applications can also be distributed in this way, being unlocked with an access code quoted by the publisher in response to a credit card telephone order.

CDs are also robust, and CD-ROMs, being non-recordable, maintain data integrity and prevent accidental erasure. Robust and light, a CD is also even cheaper to mail than a standard floppy.

On the downside, producing a CD does entail greater set up costs than duplicating floppy disks, though these costs have come down substantially. Also as with floppy disks, distribution still entails packaging and mailing and associated overhead and often the appointment of a dealer network. For these reasons it is not practicable to update CD publications as frequently as might be desired for time-sensitive material.

Although the growth in sales of multi-media machines over the last 12 months has been phenomenal, it will still be some time before the majority of lawyers do equip themselves with the necessary technology. (Bear in mind that a large number are still using equipment purchased up to 10 years ago and more.) Of course (the argument goes) they will all buy them when more CD titles are published, but I wouldn’t count on a big rush.


Publishing information on-line is potentially the cheapest way to distribute information, the main qualification being that maintaining a continuous service does require a higher level of commitment and investment. Publishing on-line is immediate: information is published as soon as it is produced, and there need be no delay between a request for information and its provision on-line. It is also inter-active, inherently two-way traffic. This may be as straightforward as a response to a search request from the on-line database, or it may involve a more active dialogue between user and host or user and user. Thus on-line publishing encompasses communication between people not just machines.

It may be helpful to categorise on-line publishing today as follows:

(1) Private networks

A local area network (LAN) used to connect computer users on a single site is a publishing medium: it is (or should be) a controlled environment, where documents and data transmitted over the network are in internally-agreed standard formats readable by all others on the network with access rights. So information can be consulted and exchanged, ie published, within the site. A wide area network (WAN) extends the medium across several sites, which may belong to different firms or organisations and be in different countries. The LawNet group’s network is an example of such private inter-firm publishing using a WAN.

(2) Commercial services

Commercial services break down as between providers such as Lexis and Justis where the emphasis is on the provision of published materials and services such as CompuServe and LINK who place as much emphasis on communication, creating an information network rather than just an information service. Here control is exercised by the commercial host who determines the standards, access rights and charges.

(3) The Internet

The Internet is the ultimate network of networks (often referred to as a ‘virtual’ network). It is public – anyone can join; and it is uncontrolled – you can publish what you like (at your own risk of course). Research on the Internet can be spontaneous and impulsive – there is a world of information out there just waiting to be discovered. Best of all it is free. It is not difficult to see why, once it emerged from the preserve of the academic community in which it grew up, its popularity has soared. And its anarchic nature has undoubtedly enhanced its appeal to a wide section of the public.

What’s in it for lawyers?

There is now a wide range of materials available on (floppy) disk from the legal publishers. These are principally precedents and related products – for the essence of a lawyer’s work is document production and a real market does exist for such products. As already noted, the floppy disk is quite the most marketable format and there has thus been no rush to convert these products to CD.

Until recently most materials available on CD and on-line have been primary sources. The fact that they have not penetrated the market widely is quite simply that these are of minority appeal; as our recent chairman, Jimmy Macintosh, observed ‘for most lawyers, consulting the primary sources is a last resort’ (C&L Feb 94).

So far as on-line publishing is concerned (and the comments apply in part to CD publishing too), the premises on which Legalease based the LINK service were that:

  • lawyers do not like using computers
  • most on-line systems are difficult to use
  • most on-line systems are extremely expensive

(Computers and Law, April 1994)

LINK has succeeded in attracting custom because it is easy to use and the basic service is free. It is not known how many of the current 4,000 users take advantage of the chargeable services, nor whether this is yet generating sufficient revenue to sustain the service. LINK’S facilities and attractions have been covered in this journal (see C&L April and October 1994).

Recognising that dumping primary source materials on disk with a search engine is not the answer to the average practitioner’s prayers, the major publishers and new entrants are now producing a new breed of product employing hypertext techniques to reference and link together materials in an attempt to replicate a practitioner’s bookshelf on disk, but with the important difference that all the research paths are already mapped out and navigable with the click of a mouse. Thus we have tax libraries from CLS/HMSO, Tolleys and Butterworths. Other Books on Screen are following from Butterworths and it is likely that similar products in other practice areas will emerge from other publishers. While these products in the main re-publish existing primary source and text book materials, it is likely that future editions will include innovative features, rendering a books on screen-type tag somewhat out of date.

It is early days yet for the Internet so far as UK lawyers are concerned. Robin Widdison in his article for the Web Journal of Current Legal Issues, the first on-line journal of UK law covers the opportunities in his article ‘Lawyering on The Internet’ (the journal’s home page is at [gone]. See also the paper by Wendy London for the IBA Conference in Melbourne, ‘The Information Highway: How Firms and in-house Legal Departments Communicate’ (available for download from the BIALL Conference on LINK). In summary, lawyering on the Internet includes:

  • communication, whether for case work, teaching or research, with in-house contacts, clients, counsel etc, either on a one-to-one basis or in conference
  • publication of court lists etc
  • research into articles, statutes, case reports etc published on the Worldwide Web, and information posted to newsgroups and specialist mailing lists
  • back office functions, particularly marketing, but also sales, purchases and money transfer

Information relevant to UK law and practice on the Worldwide Web is scant and patchy at present. As indicated in the last issue (Feb 1995), one of the best starting points for worldwide coverage is Indiana University’s Virtual Library: Law (at [gone]). A benefit of this index is that it lists the other major law indexes, such as Yahoo’s and Cornell’s, at its top level. So far as UK resources are concerned, you may prefer to start with an index maintained by one of the UK law schools: Strathclyde and Bristol are good examples. You are, however, quite likely to find yourself going round in circles. As information on the Internet is growing exponentially there is a pressing need for well-researched and maintained indexes to supplement the automatic indexes and search tools available. As Derek Sturdy commented in relation to in-house information stores

A system which seeks to handle and make use of the entire bank of text, without the interposition of … human-written indexes, seems likely to drown under the weight of its own material, and thje result will be an unusable … behemoth. … such a system will work well in the early [stages]; it is only as the library grows in size that the deficiencies will appear. (Computers and Law, October 1994)

Information for Lawyers [now called infolaw] has/specifically designed its home page to be of assistance to practising UK lawyers in exploring the Internet, providing a top level index relevant to UK lawyering (referencing all the sites mentioned above and more). We are (but still under construction) at [gone] and would be most interested in feedback.

Thus far commercial organisations (including lawyers) have been slow to take up the commercial possibilities of the Net which can be used as a very powerful marketing medium. Firms can promote themselves using WWW pages, providing response forms for further information or ordering. To date the insecurity of data transmitted over the Net has inhibited its use for credit card ordering or the transfer of funds. Netscape has however, recently announced that it will be licensing, and intends to maintain as an open standard, its secure socket layer (SSL) technology which will ensure confidentiality and integrity of data (Guardian On-line 23 March 95). It is expected that commercial use of the Net as an advertising and publishing medium will grow very rapidly. Unlike other media, however, we won’t have to look/unless we choose to do so.