God Forbid That Some For-Profit Business Should Benefit While You Help People

This morning, I suggested that people who find errors in a Westlaw or Lexis version of a document help their fellow users by e-mailing the correction to west.referenceattorneys@thomson.com or source.acquisition@lexisnexis.com. I suggested that this is especially nice if it’s an error that confused you or risked leading you into an error of your own — once you’ve figured out the problem, it’s good to take a minute to help keep others from being tripped up by it.

A commenter responded, “I don’t think I would be very inclined to spend even ten seconds of my time providing free labor for ThomsonWest. Maybe if there were a nonprofit legal database dedicated to providing free or cheap access to court documents to the general public, I’d be willing to donate some labor to help them improve the database. But Westlaw and Lexis can surely hire their own copyeditors. Alternatively, if they want me to submit errors when I run across them, they could offer a small reporting fee to people who report errors that turned out to indeed be errors.” Two others agreed; and when I made the same suggestion two years ago, I got two similar comments.

This doesn’t strike me as a sound approach. The benefit of a correction, after all, isn’t really to the companies, which get little marginal profit out of these corrections. It’s to other people like you — your fellow lawyers, law students, academics, and the like; or, if you prefer, the benefit is that error gets corrected and prevented. And those are precisely the same benefits that would stem from correcting errors in a nonprofit legal database.

It’s also pretty similar to the benefit that comes from posting comments pointing out supposed errors. To be sure, those are public, and there might be some separate benefit from seeing your words on the screen, and having their merit potentially acknowledged — even if only credited to your screen name — by others. But I would think the general reasoning behind taking time to correct others’ errors is much the same: Correcting misconceptions helps others, and if it’s cheap to do, many people are happy to do that.

What bothers me is that somehow this happiness seems to be diluted for some by the prospect that, while other people are helped, some for-profit organization also gets a very small benefit for which it doesn’t have to pay out of pocket. Why let that interfere with your enjoyment of helping others, or of correcting error? Look, if you don’t want to spend even ten seconds helping other people this way, I have nothing against that; you’re under no obligation. But if you derive some pleasure from helping people, or improving the accuracy of information, I don’t see why you should get put off by the fact that in the process Westlaw and Thomson might get some tiny benefit.

Or consider this: Say you see a spill on the floor of a supermarket. Do you mention it to a clerk, so that other people can avoid falling and hurting themselves? Or do you keep quiet, on the theory that you don’t want to spend even ten seconds providing free labor for the supermarket? (Let’s set aside the possibility that you tell the clerk because that increases the chance that the supermarket will be held legally liable if it doesn’t clean it up; I hope that few people are specifically motivated by that.)

It would be a shame, it seems to me, if people took the second view, and failed to help someone only because a for-profit institution might incidentally benefit.