American States Purposefully Claim Copyright In Their Own Laws, Demand That Citizens Pay If They Want To See Them

I realized that my last post may have been overly unfair to Liberia, and may have implied that an entity claiming copyright in a state’s legislation was an unusual occurrence.

It’s not. Numerous sub-Federal government bodies in the U.S. (and Canada) have attempted to do exactly the same. (Feds are prohibited from claiming any copyright under Sec. 105 of the Copyright Act.) California, for instance, claimed copyright in its “building codes, plumbing standards and criminal laws”, and charged users to obtain copies of the statutes and regulations they are already presumed under the law to have knowledge of. And it’s pretty clear why states do it: there’s money to be made.

To purchase a digital copy of the California code costs $1,556, or $2,315 for a printed version. The state generates about $880,000 annually by selling its laws, according to the California Office of Administrative Law.

Oregon also tried the same copyright-in-the-compilation trick that Banks is doing in Liberia:

The State of Oregon takes exception to Web sites that republish the state’s Revised Statutes in full, claiming that the statutes contain copyrighted information in the republication causes the state to lose money it needs to continue putting out the official version of the statutes. Oregon’s Legislative Counsel, Dexter Johnson, has therefore requested that legal information site Justia remove the information or (preferably) take out a paid license from the state. …

While the text of the law is not copyrighted, the “arrangement and subject-matter compilation of Oregon statutory law, the prefatory and explanatory notes, the leadlines and numbering for each statutory section, the tables, index and annotations and other such incidents” are under copyright.

Luckily, the judiciary has, so far, not looked on to such claims too kindly. Recently, California got its rear end handed to them over its attempt to claim copyright in public maps.

A California county’s three-year battle to prevent a nonprofit group from obtaining public mapping data has ended disastrously for the county after it was ordered by a court to pay the group $500,000 in legal costs.

Last February, Santa Clara County, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, was ordered to hand over the public records to the California First Amendment Coalition for a minimal duplication fee after initially trying to charge $250,000 for the data and then appealing to the federal government to designate the data a national security secret that couldn’t be released. This week the county paid out to the coalition twice the amount in legal fees that it had once hoped to rake in as profit for the data.

With the release of the exciting (if kinda unwieldy) addition to Google Scholar that allows you to search full federal and state court opinions as well as law journals, ever more “public information” is being made, for the first time, actually available to the public. Meanwhile, I’ll be cheering on the development of Law.Gov. Sorry, Wexis — I loved the freebies you gave me in law school, but it’s time for you to take a less prominent position in the U.S. legal system:

Law.Gov is a movement that is determined to work to raise the quality of government information. They are determined to establish standards for state and local courts, legislatures and agencies to follow in the production and distribution of their own legal materials.

If Law.Gov succeeds in its mission, it will mean that governments and courts will produce better information, in formats that are reliable, accurate and distributed freely to all who need it. And all who need it include both private citizens and providers of VHPPLM [Very Highly Priced Primary Legal Material]. As such, this is good for news for providers of VHPPLM, as well as ordinary consumers of primary legal materials.


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