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If information "wants to be free," as one half of the famous aphorism goes, somebody forgot to tell Wall Street. This fall a federal appeals court in New York will weigh in on a long-running and widely watched legal dispute pitting Barclays Capital, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley against, a New Jersey–based web site that publishes sell-side analyst recommendations before the market opens — and often before the firms can distribute their own research to clients. The firms contend this hurts their commission revenue. This past spring a lower court judge ordered to delay publication of the firms’ stock calls until one half hour after the opening of the New York Stock Exchange, among other restrictions. The web site countered with an appeal and won a temporary stay.

Even if the brokerage firms prevail in their battle against, winning the war to preserve the primacy of their investment research won’t be easy. Bolstered by the low cost of online publishing and the rising popularity of blogs, discussion forums and commenting, a growing number of niche web sites are creating opportunities for new forms of investment analysis to emerge — and for buy-side professionals, even those at rival firms, to collaborate and learn directly from one another. These social media web sites are supplementing, and in some cases supplanting, the traditional Wall Street information ecosystem that transmits sell-side investment research and stock calls to the buy side. The sites’ popularity has been fueled by the limitations and shrinking coverage universe of sell-side research and the failure of establishment experts — from Wall Street analysts and strategists to the credit ratings agencies to the financial news media — to call the credit crisis.

“The sell side can often be slow to twist and turn with where the market is going,” says David Jackson, a former Morgan Stanley technology analyst and the founder and CEO of Seeking Alpha, a leading investment blog backed by blue-chip venture capital firms Accel Partners, Benchmark Capital and DAG Ventures. But crowd-sourcing investment ideas, he says, has its benefits: Throughout the rise and crash in the price of oil in 2007 and 2008, the unraveling of the housing market and the implosion of Bear Stearns Cos. and Lehman Brothers Holdings, Jackson’s more than 3,000 handpicked contributors and vocal readers were “uncannily on topic in terms of what was driving the market — at a macro level and an individual stock level.”