How Washington DC Went From Locking Up Laws To Releasing Them In The Public Domain Within Days

from the good-move dept

In past years we’ve had stories about both Oregon and California claiming copyright over their own laws, which is ridiculous. If copyright is supposed to be about the incentives for creative expression, then it should have nothing to do with lawmaking at all. It’s not as if the state needs a copyright incentive to write laws — though some states have tried to argue that it needs the incentive to entice big corporate entities to print the laws. That, too, is ridiculous, as plenty of public domain info gets printed all the time — and it really has no bearing on the simple fact that laws are public domain material, considering that the public is expected to know and obey them. While the Copyright Act makes it clear that any work done directly by federal government employees is automatically in the public domain, it’s just slightly squishier when it comes to works from state governments, though there, too, it is generally believed that they fall in the public domain, as they should.

In the last week, a lot of attention was paid to the fact that Washington DC had been claiming a copyright on its laws, saying that you could not download a digital copy, and the state couldn’t even release an entire copy of its own laws under a FOIA request, because of the copyright and the contract it held with outside publishing firms (initially West and, more recently, Lexis). As with the stories in Oregon and California, the person who helped drive attention to just how crazy this is was Carl Malamud, hero to everyone who believes in the importance of open access to public information. This time, he paid $803 for a copy of the code, scanned it all, and sent copies on USB drives in the shape of famous American Presidents to a bunch of folks.

Normally, at this point in the story, we hear about the local government hemming and hawing or even issuing vague threats. But not in the case of DC. Over the course of a few days, it appears that Washington DC’s tech savvy General Counsel V. David Zvenyach quickly moved to deal with the problem. Part of the issue was that the only digital copy of the code that they had was the one given to them by West, and it contained a variety of extraneous information that was West’s IP, including West logos on each section of the law (representing many thousands of copies). Zvenyach had Joshua Tauberer come by and spend a day removing every bit of West IP from the document and quickly releasing a downloadable copy of the DC Code with a CC0 public domain license.

That’s pretty awesome. To go from having the code locked up for no good reason to a public domain downloadable release in days is pretty cool. Kudos to Malamud, Zvenyach and Tauberer for their part in this, as well as Tom MacWright, who first sought the copy of the code and brought this issue to the attention of Malamud and others.

Of course, it’s not a perfect solution. As MacWright notes in his post about this release:

There are a few things that this isn’t: it isn’t the official copy of the code, and lawyers would be ill-advised to cite it alone. It isn’t up-to-date – the council is fast-moving and this is just a snapshot. In time we’ll fix these problems too.

Yes, even though it’s being released directly by the DC Council on their website, it’s designated as an “unofficial copy” and it’s only up-to-date through last year. However, hopefully others will get it up to date, and eventually the DC Council will be able to list an “official” copy as well. Oh, and for those living in or around DC, MacWright is also planning a hackathon around this new code, to see what awesome and useful tools people can build on top of it.

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Companies: lexis, west

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Comments on “How Washington DC Went From Locking Up Laws To Releasing Them In The Public Domain Within Days”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Casting aside the copyright issue, the difference between “official” and “unofficial” is of critical importance. The former has been “vetted”, whereas the latter quite typically has not. In engineering parlance, it is much the same as what transpires under “configuration control”.

It is also useful to keep in mind how laws are eventually presented in published form. Using the USG as an example, laws are enacted in a form known as “Public Laws”. Take a look at the “Public Law” for the PPACA (so-called “Obamacare”) and you will quickly understand the virtual impossibility of understanding what the law actually comprises. Where companies like West come in is that they take these Public Laws and convert them into a comprehensible format. This process is known as “codification”, and almost invariably includes annotations concerning prior versions, if any, the legislative history, etc. These companies also provide in real time what are known as “advance sheets”, i.e., compendiums of new and amended statutes. Book sets are formally published on a periodic basis. Advance sheets fill in the blanks until the next formal publication is distributed.

DannyB (profile) says:

This is way worse than what Aaron Swartz did

Considering how much worse this is than what Aaron Swartz did, shouldn’t the DOJ be making this a top priority case? Why hasn’t anyone been arrested yet? How many years should they get? Does a case like this warrant the use of enhanced interrogation techniques such as forced Justin Beiber music?

Dirty rotten pirate thieves! Stealing our laws. If this keeps up we would soon be a lawless society where anyone could make up their own laws, pay the fee to get them enacted, and then keep them secret.

JWW (profile) says:


If Ignorance of the law is not an acceptable excuse for breaking it, then all laws must be fully and completely made available to the public!!

Also, it is my belief that all our representatives should be made to actually read any laws they vote on in their entirety. If thats too damn hard for them, then maybe the laws they’re creating should be made simpler.

JarHead says:

Re: If....

Maybe, requiring them to take a quiz about the law to be eligible to vote on it (having B score as mandatory minimum) will teach ’em. But then again, problems will arise as to who make the quiz and who to rate the answers. And it’ll be politicized as a new way to block new laws, as if filibuster isn’t a joke enough.


Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Creative Lawmaking

“If copyright is supposed to be about the incentives for creative expression, then it should have nothing to do with lawmaking at all.”

Or maybe it does. Maybe, just maybe these new laws made up with no basis in fact or measurable goal are just that, creative. Therefore, since the laws are creative they qualify for copyright. Since the laws qualify for copyright, the creators should be paid royalties. That means stopping that despicable pirating of our laws, which reduce our royalty. What is wrong with this country when true creativity is ignored and blatantly stolen.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Creative Lawmaking

Well, since law making is designed to compensate the lawmakers (ie: through revolving door favors and campaign contributions) maybe adding a copy’right’ to laws and giving ownership to the creators (ie: lawmakers) is a good idea. It could help compensate them for their works. That way they won’t have to seek compensation through bribes. and if you believe that copy’right’ is property then this property is transferable as well.

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