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Government Your Rights Online

City Laws Only Available Via $200 License 411

Posted by kdawson
from the calling-doctor-malamud dept.
MrLint writes "The City of Schenectady has decided that their laws are copyrighted, and that you cannot know them without paying for an 'exclusive license' for $200. This is not a first — Oregon has claimed publishing of laws online is a copyright violation." This case is nuanced. The city has contracted with a private company to convert and encode its laws so they can be made available on the Web for free. While the company works on this project, it considers the electronic versions of the laws its property and offers a CD version, bundled with its software, for $200. The man who requested a copy of the laws plans to appeal.
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City Laws Only Available Via $200 License

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  • by Dunbal (464142) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:06AM (#30086132)

    Exactly the point I was going to make. Besides, I think the value of properties in that town is a trade secret, but we'll declare the property to be worth $100. What percentage annual property tax were they charging again?

  • Outrageous (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:13AM (#30086214) Homepage Journal

    As I was reading TFA there was another thing I saw that outraiged me besides the ludicrous copyrighting of laws.

    Eiss dropped by City Hall a couple of weeks ago and asked for a copy of the city code, a two-part document that includes the City Charter and the administrative code, a full set of local ordinances governing everything from building inspections to waste disposal.

    Because it's voluminous -- the paper version fills two thick, black, 3-ring binders, says Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden -- Eiss asked for it in electronic format, probably a disk.

    Why does a city's laws and codes have to be two fat binders? Perhaps I'm making a wrong assumption (or just have my head up my ass; I'm on my first cup of coffee this morning), but a thick binder where I work is about four inches thick.

    Why so many codes and regulations? And not only does one have to obey these laws, but there are the state and Federal laws you have to abide by as well.

    How the hell is anyone supposed to avoid being a criminal when there are books and books of laws one has to obey?

    I'd like to see a new federal law that says all laws, codes, and ordinances expire after a period of ten years, after which time lawmakers can re-enact those laws if they deem necessary. We have WAY too many laws.

    And I'd like to see the next copyright revision state plainly and emphatically that no government can copyright anything whatever.

    Someone please violate this city's bogus copyright and get the laws on the internet. And publically shame the city and its leaders for their insanity. I know if I lived in Schenectady I'd be voting against the incumbants (of course, I usually do here anyway).

  • by buttersnout (832768) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:16AM (#30086252)
    In my experience the "ignorance of the law is no excuse" standpoint holds up whether or not you have a good excuse for your ignorance. The police once copied down my address incorrectly on a ticket (they ignored my correct address on the copy of the ticket I mailed in) causing a summons to court, a notice of default judgement against me, a notice that my ticket was unpaid and a notice that my license had been suspended to be sent to the wrong address. I was later charged with driving with a suspended license after an accident a few months later. I discovered what had happened after some digging at the bureau of public records. I explained what had happened to the judge and he told me the ignorance of the law is ones own fault period. The fact that the state had tried to contact me was sufficient on their part. It is always your responsibility to become informed of the law regardless of any difficulties you have.
  • by Kartoffel (30238) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:20AM (#30086304)

    The company that's typing up these laws got sucked into a bad deal. They probably signed a contract believing they would hold a copyright over the laws. Bullshit. At most, that company has a copyright over the CD version that they're creating.

    The laws themselves are public domain, as laws must be. To claim anything else renders the City of Schenectady illegitimate. Seriously--you can't make asinine claims like that and expect to remain a legitimate form of government. If I were working for the State or a neighboring local government, I'd give Schenectady a few weeks to come to their senses and then pull the plug. No more funding, no more cooperation, no nothing. Treat them like a rogue state. It's harsh but necessary. No one should have to stand for government gone haywire.

  • by rotide (1015173) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:23AM (#30086350)

    Or should I say is pretty much dead.

    Old resident here (I lived in Rotterdam, a town in Schenectady).

    Schenectady was a booming place many years ago (~30) due to ALCO (American Locomotive) and GE (General Electric) being major companies that not only paid a lot in taxes but also brought other businesses to the area.

    Downtown Schenectady, while small, was always alive with shops, stores, etc. Heck, my favorite as a child was a small two story hardware store that had one of those old school ceiling mounted "trolly" systems for moving orders/payments around the building. It was fun as a child to watch it zoom around.

    Not anymore however. Schenectady decided it would be a great idea to raise taxes and grab more cash. GE and I'm assuming ALCO (can't remember when they pulled out) both decided taxes were too high and they pulled most of their operations out of Schenectady. This has pretty much killed the local economy as all the other small businesses that relied on the employee (residents and commuters) patronage have closed up shop. Schenectady shot itself in the foot really bad.

    The article seems to state this is a temporary situation as they are paying $20k to get this on the web for everyone (assuming for free). But at first glance it looked like a misguided cash grab. Maybe it is, I'm not sure. Will be interesting to see how quickly they get a free version out there, if the web version does indeed end up being free. If not, *sigh*, Schenectady will be doing something stupid, again, to make a buck.

  • No need to overreact (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 7-Vodka (195504) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:29AM (#30086400) Journal
    This isn't a big conspiracy. This is city government. If you've ever been to a small city governmental meeting you know that the proportion of complete idiots pontificating over each other is quite high.
    In this case the majority of people in the room when this was decided were that kind of people.

    Give it a little bit and their asses are gonna be toast in court and they're going to realize that they can't rule over the city folk like dictators. Unfortunately they will never realize the real magnitude of their stupidity.

  • by Zantac69 (1331461) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:37AM (#30086526) Journal
    Reminds me of a quote from The Way of the Gun ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0202677/ [imdb.com] )

    Karma is justice without the satisfaction, and I dont believe in justice
  • by russotto (537200) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:40AM (#30086578) Journal

    I discovered what had happened after some digging at the bureau of public records. I explained what had happened to the judge and he told me the ignorance of the law is ones own fault period.

    Judge was an idiot. Ignorance of the _law_ is no excuse. Ignorance of specific FACTS often is; ignorance of the law in your case would be if you knew your license was suspended but you didn't know that driving with a suspended license was illegal.

    In this case, the courts will (as usual) rule for the government. On two grounds
    1) You can always head down to the state capital and examine the laws in their law library, on paper.
    2) States have long been incorporating copyrighted codes into their laws by reference, and the courts have been perfectly happy to let them do it. Want to add an electrical outlet? That'll be $$$$ for the NEC, please.

    The more interesting case will be if some enterprising person buys the $200 CD, strips the laws themselves out of it (minus any formatting or commentary by the publishing company), and posts them or starts selling his own CD.

  • by palegray.net (1195047) <philip.paradis@NoSpAm.palegray.net> on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:43AM (#30086630) Homepage Journal

    and contacted the DMV four or more times a year

    That, sir, sounds like an outstanding opportunity for a community campaign. I'd make it four or five times a week though... per person.

  • by realityimpaired (1668397) on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:22AM (#30087078)

    That would be the point under which most of the comments crying foul are being made... somebody moderate the parent either Informative or Insightful...

    If they were making the law unavailable to those who can't spend the $200, then there would be a problem. Anything the government creates, including laws, is in the public domain. (this being Slashdot, it's worth mentionning that this is why the BSD and MIT licenses for software exist... they were originally created to cover software that was created with government funding at Universities, somewhere that traditional open source licenses which retain copyright, like the GPL, wouldn't apply) The thing is, they aren't setting it up so that you can't view the laws without paying the $200. There's still several places that you, as a citizen, can go to view the law, and there are plans to make the law available for online searching.

    Seems like a non-issue, and another classic case of the submitter and editor not reading TFA, to me. *checks*. Yup. kdawson. Move along.

  • by ethicalBob (1023525) on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:35AM (#30087264)
    Two more minor points:

    1) its not the LAW that is being held under copyright, it is the software on the CD-ROM that is under copyright. AGAIN, the law is freely available in book form at the library and city hall (sections of which can be taken home for the price of photocopying, or just take your digital camera/cellphone and shoot copies of the pages) - They are not copyrighted, and TFA does not claim that they are.

    2) the title is alarmist, and currently reads: "City Laws Only Available Via $200 License"

    to make it even remotely accurate, it should read: "City Laws Only Available Via $200 License, If purchased on CD ROM - but will be free on the web, soon".
  • by mitgib (1156957) on Friday November 13, 2009 @12:34PM (#30087978) Homepage Journal

    Your example about the number of people we have in prison isn't related to this topic. A large number of them are in prison for non-violent drug offenses-something they knew was illegal. I don't believe our war on drugs is really about drugs, it's about making minorities criminals.

    I think you've touched on something, but not the full grasp of the situation. I think the higher percentage of minorities being in prison is due to their lack of resources to acquire a proper defense. But disregard the makeup of our prison population and look only at the sheer number of prisoners, and it seems to me to be a new form of bringing back slavery, with corporate run prisons being the new plantation owners. These corporations are charging a fee to the states they house prisoners for and that fee will cover the operating costs as well as a profit. Now add in labor costs they can earn from selling the use of the prisoners for or manufacturing they do within the walls of the prison constructing products. More profit.

    So now we have another new, large, powerful, deep pocketed lobbying group pushing for harsher laws and stiffer penalties to grow the population of these new slaves, to the point of one day we will either be a prisoner or a prison guard.

  • by mea37 (1201159) on Friday November 13, 2009 @12:35PM (#30088004)

    The headline and TFS both state that the code is only available to citizens for a $200 license. This is not true. RTFA.

    This is a case of a company trying to weasle a buck and a city government not thinking through the options that might best serve a citizen. There was a fair amount of stupidity involved in the manner of refusing the FOI request, but that's about it.

    The law is available for anyone to review - just not to take home their own copy without considerable expense. It will be available online for free in the near future, and where this guy ran into trouble is he specifically asked for a more convenient form of the information than the city is presently in a position to provide without more creativity than they exercise by defualt.

    Bottom line - the city officials should get better educated, and it sounds like they're doing just that as they consider options to fill this request; in other words, business as usual, nothing to see here.

  • by DavidTC (10147) <[slas45dxsvadiv. ... ] [neverbox.com]> on Friday November 13, 2009 @01:10PM (#30088398) Homepage

    The GP's case isn't ignorance of the law at all.

    It is an entirely different thing, ignorance of the facts. This is because most laws require 'intent'.

    It is illegal for me to steal mail out of my neighbor's mailbox, whether I know that law or not. Not knowing that law is not going to help me.

    If their mail gets put in my box, and I fail to notice that a piece of mail is addressed to them and I open it, that is tampering with mail, but it not intentionally tampering with the mail, and hence not illegal. I didn't know the fact that it was their mail.

    Now, there are laws where intent is weakened, like manslaughter, where you can be charged if you didn't make an effort to learn the facts, like the fact someone was walking in front of your car while you were driving it. While doing some dangerous things, there is a minimum standard of awareness and cognitive thought that people are required to have.

    But 99% of the laws require you to know what you are doing is, in fact, what you doing, and do it on purpose. It's illegal if, and only if, you know you're doing a specific action, whether or not you know if that action's illegal.

    This is why a lot of laws are phrased weirdly. For example, if rearend someone in a car, you get charged with 'following too close'. You didn't intentionally run into their car, so you can't be charged with that. (That probably is an actual separate crime that almost no one gets charged with. Or just vandalism.) You were, however, intentionally driving too close to stop, or intentionally not paying attention (Which is a bit of oxymoron, but whatever.), which caused the accident.

    Anyway, you have to intentionally fail to show up in court, and it can't be a crime to 'fail to check', like with manslaughter...there are tens of thousands of courts in this country, you can't be required to call them all and constantly check if you need to show up.

    The judge was, in fact, wrong in this case. Failure to show in court is failure to show in court after you've been summoned to court. If you have not been notified, you have not been summoned.

  • Re:Outrageous (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DavidTC (10147) <[slas45dxsvadiv. ... ] [neverbox.com]> on Friday November 13, 2009 @01:50PM (#30088970) Homepage

    What I say is that laws should be strictly hierarchical.

    You should be able to look up what you want to do, and be able to read maybe 50 laws about that topic, and know factually that no other law can be relevant.

    For example, look up 'Public property', then 'Not in a vehicle', then 'Not deliberately interacting with others', and find out what the laws on loitering or whatever are, and know that no other laws can actually apply.

    That's not the best example, and those categories are dumb, but the point is, while the law is roughly hierarchical, it's not hierarchical by law, and hence some random law you've never heard of can cover the situation you're in, even if you went and looked that situation up in the actual place you should have.

    I.e., legally speaking, you have to read the entire law to know if you can do anything at all, which is idiotic and, frankly, unconstitutional.

    All laws, at all government levels, should be required to be posted in a way that lets you 'drill down' to the area of any actions you might be considering, and read all laws that vaguely cover it. Maybe allowing 100 'laws' total at the ultimate level. Each category clearly explaining what other categories and laws are under it.

    If you can demonstrate that you looked up your behavior where a reasonable person would, and the law you're being charged with wasn't there, said charge should be thrown out, and the legislature should be informed that law won't be enforced until it gets placed in the correct place.

    The same law, could, of course, end up in multiple places, which means we shouldn't use this system to enumerate the laws. We could keep using the existing system, only have one copy of each law, but require a useful index.

    (If I thought it was vaguely possible, I'd instead suggest having each law 'tagged with keywords', which would be a better way to do this.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 13, 2009 @06:12PM (#30092522)

    James Madison -- "It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?"

  • by JohnRoss1968 (574825) on Saturday November 14, 2009 @12:38AM (#30095062)

    Ahh but you are wrong...
    There is no such thing as being a racist against a white man.
    White man makes comment about Black man = RACIST
    Black Man makes same comment about White man = NOT RACIST
    Racism is racism period.
    Until you can come up with FACTS proving whites are more likely to have drugs than that comment is as racist as blacks are more likely to have fried chicken.

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