Monday, April 01, 2013

Some localities, states actually copyright their statutes, supporting publisher monopolies

Some local governments and states copyright their laws, and prohibit others from republishing them.  Washington DC is one such government, according to a story on p. A12 in The Washington Times today  (“Ignorance of D.C.’s copyrighted laws can be costly”, April 1, 2013), by Luke Rosiak. No, this is not an April Fools joke. The link is (website url) here.  (AOL’s report of a life-searching probe to Jupiter on April 1, 1996, authored by Steve Case himself, was a joke.)
The only way residents and researchers can see the code is to pay WestLaw over $800 for a copy, or view it at the website, link.  It looks like you would have to be a subscriber to view it.
On the other hand, it’s easy to find Virginia code online.  I have quote part of its filial responsibility law on my July 7, 2007 posting on my “Bill Boushka Retires” blog (which see).  I’ve quoted filial responsibility laws from several states’ codes on that blog.

I think it is obviously “fair use” to quote a portion of a controversial statute (a filial responsibility law would be controversial, as would a statute outlining unlawful behavior on the Internet), in order to discuss the implication of the statute for ordinary folks (without paying for a lawyer’s time).  It isn’t hard to see where this discussion heads. (I wonder how the AARP got access to states that “copyright” their laws when it published its map of state filial responsibility laws, sane blog, March 8, 2013). 

States that copyright their code include Georgia, Wyoming, Colorado, Ohio, Mississippi, and Idaho, as well as Oregon, which has sent “cease and desist” letters to publishers. 

It sounds arguable to me that all federal, state and local laws should be within the public domain.  (Even condo association rules should be so.)  I’m surprised that a statute could be copyrightable.

So were Aaron Swartz and his mentor Carl Malamud.

Lexis has been another company that may have benefited from “legal publishing” monopoly.  The structure of the Internet certainly has threatened a lot of old fashioned business models (and their employees’ jobs), when they have to compete with bloggers or entrepreneurs with few costs and no employees.  Bureaucracy tends to sag and then implode. Mark Cuban (Magnolia Pictures, HDNet, amd Shark Tank) once noted the “destroy amateur competition” problem in an email to me from Blogmaverick. 

It’s scary what you find out every morning when you bring up your computer. But copyrighting statutory law (and even having to invoke "fair use") makes no sense (except to monopolists).  By definition, it belongs to “the people”.  Just ask any prosecutor (except those who tried to crucify Aaron Swartz).   

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