When you have the riches of Westlaw and Lexis at your fingertips, why should you think about adding yet another vehicle for finding and reading U.S. cases? I can think of two main reasons.
First, Google Scholar is free and requires no login. When I know of a particular case I want to read, either by party names or citation, it takes less time to get the case from Google Scholar than it would to log into a subscription database and find the case. Since Google Scholar has no paywall, if I want to give someone a link to a case, I can use Google Scholar. For instance, today I’ve been researching whether yoga positions can be protected by copyright, I found this case: Bikram’s Yoga College of India v. Evolation Yoga.
Second, Google Scholar’s display is relatively clean and simple. Compare the Bikram case to what you see in Westlaw or Lexis, or a PDF posted by the court. Preferences may vary, but I like how Google Scholar just gives me the case and doesn’t line the sides of the screen with research tools and suggestions for other sources. Those features are great when I’m gathering materials, but I think Google Scholar is better for reading cases.
Let’s look at finding cases on copyright for yoga positions as an example of using Google Scholar. First, you need to click the cases button under the search bar; otherwise, you would be searching scholarly articles by default. Then you can choose federal or state cases. If you want to get even more specific with your jurisdiction, click Select Courts and you can choose individual states or even individual federal districts.
Copyright is a federal issue, so I select Federal courts and search copyright AND yoga. Here are my results:
This is interesting. The first page has no cases about yoga, but I know Feist (result 1) and Baker v. Selden (result 4) are Supreme Court cases about whether something is copyrightable. A major question is whether yoga poses are copyrightable, so it appears Google Scholar has connected copyright and yoga with the legal issue of copyrightability. Not until page 2 of the results do I find a case in which yoga is part of the litigation.
Note that the cases that actually involve yoga are from federal district courts. Google has bumped those cases down in the results because they are from lower courts and opted to give me cases from the Supreme Court and courts of appeals that relate to a similar legal issue and probably would be cited by the district court judges deciding whether yoga postures are copyrightable.
Let’s look at the first result, Feist.
In addition to reading the case, I can click How Cited to see other cases that have cited Feist and quotes from those cases so I can see how they cited Feist.
Google doesn’t categorize citations by treatment, so this is for finding related cases, not determining if a case is good law or has negative treatment.
Google doesn’t update with new cases as quickly as Westlaw or Lexis. Just yesterday, the 9th Circuit ruled in Bikram’s Yoga (spoiler: the poses are not copyrightable), but Google Scholar doesn’t have it yet. For a free database, though, Google Scholar is a solid research tool.