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Don't Share That Law! It's Copyrighted 481

Nathan Halverson writes "California claims copyright to its laws, and warns people not to share them. And that's not sitting right with Internet gadfly, and open-access hero, Carl Malamud. He has spent the last couple months scanning tens of thousands of pages containing city, county and state laws — think building codes, banking laws, etc. Malamud wants California to sue him, which is almost a given if the state wants to continue claiming copyright. He thinks a federal court will rule in his favor: It is illegal to copyright the law since people are required to know it. Malamud helped force the SEC to put corporate filings online in 1994, and did the same with the patent office. He got the Smithsonian to loosen its claim of copyright, CSPAN to stop forbidding people from sharing its videos, and most recently Oregon to quit claiming copyright on state laws." Malamud's talk at Google ("All the Government's Information") is also well worth watching.
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Don't Share That Law! It's Copyrighted

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  • Not illegal (Score:4, Interesting)

    by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @02:37PM (#24862829) Homepage

    > It is illegal to copyright the law since people are required to know it.

    Copyrights on laws may be unenforceable but they are not illegal.

  • Baffling (Score:5, Interesting)

    by geekmansworld ( 950281 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @02:37PM (#24862839) Homepage

    This view by certain US states that laws are copyrighted material is plexing to me. The laws are written by people, on materials, that are funded by the taxpayer. Therefore, laws are PUBLIC property.

    And what point does copyrighting ones' laws serve? Is it about publication rights? If ignorance of the law is no excuse, then why is access not free to all.


  • by silentbozo ( 542534 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @02:42PM (#24862905) Journal
    Part of the problem is that lobbyists for various trade groups have gotten California to adopt existing books of industry standards as state code. The law basically incorporates whatever is the latest industry standard book... which requires money to get. Same deal with things like medical terminology. There's a "standards group" which makes money off of licensing the billing codes and selling books of what the current billing codes are.
  • Wasting his time? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by qoncept ( 599709 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @02:48PM (#24863037) Homepage
    What is the point? Coaxing the state government in to suing him will just cost the tax payers extra money and make this guy look like a douchebag with no life. Why not just keep an eye out for any case where the government sues someone else for "violating the copyright" and then jump in that case? And if it never happens, it apparently doesn't need to, because it is affecting no one.
  • Re:Not illegal (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DannyO152 ( 544940 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @02:49PM (#24863057)

    I'd ask this question: who owns the copyrights? I'd say it's the taxpayers .

  • Legal Publishers. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Irvu ( 248207 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @02:53PM (#24863145)

    Until quite recently many states (Pennsylvania being the last) did not post their laws online at all or make them available to the public for free. In many cases the only way to get access to the actual laws was to purchase a copy from the state's legal publisher or look them up in a legal library, (which exists on ever street corner). This is as true for statutes of the type that Malamud is focusing on as caselaw which is an essential facet of law in the U.S. and other Common Law countries.

    Efforts to change this have routinely been fought by legal publishers who hold lucrative monopolies on the publication of laws and their dissemination. There also exists a generational gap in many cases with a generation accustomed to having the law on paper not really understanding why one would look online.

    So ironically what Malamud is doing is not "fighting for the norm" of freely accessible laws but fighting for something new. While many people are fond of the cant "ignorance of the law is no excuse", for most of recent U.S. history laws have been hidden.

    Good luck to him.

  • by arthurpaliden ( 939626 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:01PM (#24863303)
    I am sorry Sir I cannot tell you that would put me in violation of copyright. However, I can sell you a copy of the Traffic Act and then point out the relivent section. So Sir will that be cash or charge?
  • Re:Baffling (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cvd6262 ( 180823 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:11PM (#24863457)

    This happens all the time. The judiciary doesn't want to deal with people - they want to deal with lawyers.... who get paid by the people.

    I once had to fight a ticket in a small town traffic court. I requested a deposition via registered mail, and in my state, if the deposition isn't sent within 30 days the ticket becomes defective. It had been almost 2 months, and I still didn't have it.

    As my court date approached, I took the issue up with the town clerk (who only worked a few hours, four days a week). She had never heard that they needed to send out the depositions before the court date (kind of hard to defend oneself without knowing the officer's account), but said she would take it up with the judge. In the meantime, I sent the court, again by registered mail, a notarized motion to dismiss on the grounds that the ticket was defective.

    After another week of trying, the secretary finally caved and gave me the judge's work number (he owned the gas station in the town). He was unclear on the particulars of depositions, so he pushed my court date back and then he added:

    "You know, you're not really following the proper procedures."

    "OK. What are the proper procedures?"

    "I can't tell you."

    So, it comes as no surprise that government wants to hide laws from the people.

  • by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) * <akaimbatman&gmail,com> on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:16PM (#24863541) Homepage Journal

    My browser does catch such mistakes. (Though has anyone noticed that Chrome lacks the ability to suggest correct spellings? Drives me batty.) The problem is that I cannot use the browser before the story is live. So I tend to type up my posts in Notepad. Notepad kind of sucks when it comes to spell checking. ;-)

  • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:22PM (#24863651) Homepage Journal

    "I'm sorry, your honor, I didn't have enough money to know what laws I broke.

    Stop giving them ideas!

    I'm only half joking too. It wouldn't surprise me if a state sooner or later started demanding a special and mandatory tax for giving its citizens access to its laws, or demanded a fee from lawyers who shared information about laws with their clients.

  • by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:23PM (#24863655)

    What if some smug lawyer wants to force you into obeying his threatening letter where he does not verbatim quote the law, but creates a derivative work by plagiarizing it (and thus subtly change its meaning)?

    I'm pretty sure that's called fraud and it's already illegal.

  • by Weaselmancer ( 533834 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:30PM (#24863761)

    "Government, please correct my broken business model."

  • by rtechie ( 244489 ) * on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:30PM (#24863763)

    And I would say that putting it into a law explicitly removes the copyright.

    Yes, I am asserting that legislators can place ANY document of any sort into the public domain by incorporating it into a law or the legislative record. Legislators do this all the time to dodge copyright claims against whistleblowers.

  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:31PM (#24863779) Journal

    For a good time, type :% into the Chrome address bar. Down she goes! I guess some Google beta products are more beta than others.

  • Re:Not illegal (Score:4, Interesting)

    by kesuki ( 321456 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:37PM (#24863899) Journal

    well you see there is a nasty loophole in federal copyright law. works by the (federal) government may not be copyrighted, but for instance, say a private law firm was contracted to produce a law, say a law on how copyright affects online, and before submitting the law they copyright it, and include all rights to use it 'as part of their work contract' now a law about online copyright, is now copyrighted so that individuals can be sued by a lawyer for reproducing his 'copyrighted' law on internet copyright.

    so nasty lawyer then proceeds to sue the shit out of a couple dozen companies that make it their business to disclose information on pending and current bills before the senate, so that these companies can be forced to not disclose important details of how the law was written (it's copyrighted, and no rights are available to anyone but the government) or else be shut down by greedy corrupt politicians who specifically wanted the details of the law private, and others public so that everyone thinks the law was all goodness and sunshine, but really changed the law so that copyright holders can essentially with a single letter win by proxy trials in small claims against online copyright infringers, the portion of the law where specifics were copyrighted.

    basically it allows a law all about protecting the children and what not from pedos to contain a clause that because it's all copyrighted not be disseminated and do something like put 10 billion dollars into a an unrelated bridge to nowhere in alaska, that is gold plated.

    very bad precedent, laws shouldn't be copyrighted not even by lawyers who work on them. too much incentive to bury copyrighted sections that because they're copyrighted nobody will disseminate them, because the moment they try to they're shut down... copyrighted sections that might be extremely unpopular(or downright dangerous) in an otherwise very popular sounding bill. such as say, a law allowing the president to privately execute any judge on any federal court including the supreme court, and instantly name a successor, and under the law the cause of death is officially 'heart attack' caused of course by lethal injection.

  • Re:Legal Publishers. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by swb ( 14022 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:38PM (#24863903)

    I thought this *was* the gimmick -- a given state claims copyright on the state laws laws, rules & statues and then sells a license to these to some legal publisher like Thomson/West or LexisNexis, either for cash money, free services or whatever. A handy agreement that makes a buck or two, gains some free access and helps protect a nice little monopoly for West/Lexis.

    In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they had a special law passed to claim only commercial for-profit copyright, and bestow 'free' status to legal work, citizen reference, etc just to avoid challenges to the "we copyright our laws" claim.

  • Re:Lock him up! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Klaus_1250 ( 987230 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:45PM (#24864003)
    The EU has figured this one out ... secret laws! []
  • Re:Not illegal (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bhtooefr ( 649901 ) <> on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:45PM (#24864009) Homepage Journal

    The punishment is that, if you commit suicide, your death was caused by your commission of a crime, and therefore you're treated differently by insurance companies and such.

  • Re:Lock him up! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by cduffy ( 652 ) <> on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @03:54PM (#24864133)

    You do realize just how completely you missed the point, yes?

    If they obey the law, they aren't terrorists; it's a spin on the old Randism that the state has no power against an honest man.

  • Re:Not illegal (Score:3, Interesting)

    by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @04:24PM (#24864579)

    Its actually not illegal to commit suicide in many jurisdictions.

    In places where it is illegal, its primarily to give the government more ability to intervene.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @04:35PM (#24864731)

    It's not just California. Look at the building codes in almost any area. For example, here is the building code for the Colorado Springs area:

    Only a nice light 141 pages ... seems kind of thin for a commercial & residential building code for a major city. Oh wait, here it is, and page 57:

    RBC301.1 CODES ADOPTED BY REFERENCE. There is hereby adopted by reference the International Building Code of the International Code Council, 4051 West Flossmoor Road, Country Club Hills, IL 60478-5795, 2003 Edition.

    The rest of the document is primarily amendments and exceptions to the adopted ICC code.

    I see, so how do I get access to this law then? Well, they have 3 copies in the Regional Building office, and some libraries have them. But if you need a copy on your desk (and you do if this is your business) then you need to buy it. That's right, buy the law you're held to. The ICC makes it easy - you can buy it on their website. Only $169.88 for the CD version.

    A softcover version is about $588. And from here they've learned from the textbook market. There's a new version every few years, which your local government will conveniently adopt and you get to feed the ICC dogs again.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @05:06PM (#24865129)

    Just to expand on the medical terminology comment, the upcoming new X12 5010 data format standard, expected to be put into law via HIPAA probably by 2010, was developed by a 3rd party. It boils my brain to know that the government is going to yet again mandate that we follow rules developed by a 3rd party (as good as they might be), AND PAY A SEVERAL HUNDRED DOLLAR LICENSING FEE TO SAID PRIVATE CORPORATION!

    If I reduce that down, it comes out sounding like "the government is mandating that I pay this company $x". Hmm, that doesn't sound right! What a sweet deal for that private company.

    For the record, that company is the Washington Publishing Company ( and admittedly, the standards they make are definitely valuable, but I don't see why the gov't could not have done the same or simply "acquired" the rights to this content to reduce the cost of healthcare in the U.S.

    For the record, the AMA, the ADA, and every other entity that has developed a "code set" and charged a fee for it are crooks providing a service that the public has not realized is in its own best interest to provide for itself.

  • by chriseyre2000 ( 603088 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @05:09PM (#24865181) Homepage
    The dutch have a great solution to ignorance of the law. Dutch citizen are legally obligated to be familiar with the law. Pleading ignorance of the law is admitting a crime!
  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @05:42PM (#24865599) Journal

    No, it's the result of allowing the people to elect the person who spends the most on a campaign.

  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <> on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @05:52PM (#24865705) Homepage Journal

    Stop it, just. Stop.
    Spreading that kind of FUD is harmful.
    That is not what is going on here.
    Lexus-Nexus claims they control the copyright becasue they have a contract to maintain those laws.
    This is naturally incorrect and a company trying to use FUD to maintain a perceived monopoly.

  • by arminw ( 717974 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @06:51PM (#24866405)

    ...that counties will de-certify or simply not approve equipment ....

    An entrepreneur could ask for PERFORMANCE specifications, rather than a specific manufacturer or model.

    Some years ago, we had an enterprising man build some tree-houses and then rent them to tourists. The county wanted to make him tear them down, because they were not built according to the normal building codes that ordinary houses are built. The county took him to court hoping to get their way. His contention was that they were just as safe if not safer than a normal house. To make a long story short, the judge said that because there were no codes for tree-houses, does not automatically allow the county to forbid them. He further ordered the county to work with a man and his engineers to develop proper codes especially for tree houses.

    Since trees are natural and varied, with all sorts of shapes and sizes, it was not possible to easily come up with fixed rules of materials and how they are used. Trees also tend to sway in the wind, and the rules have to allow for that fact. Therefore, the codes they came up with do not specify materials or construction techniques, but performance specifications such as load, flexibility and other pertinent factors.

    The same sort of principles should be applied in most areas. Instead of specifying a specific manufacturer for fire suppression equipment, specification serve water flow and coverage and other factors germane to extinguishing possible fires should be done. Someone with sufficient money and tenacity can force in court, the authorities to formulate rules in that way. This allows for new, innovative ways of meeting the goals of the safe and functional construction and business.

  • by DeanFox ( 729620 ) * < minus cat> on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @06:51PM (#24866411)

    This is the way it worked when I was out there. Some private company writes the building codes. They put together a package of thousands of building regulations, codes, etc. They call it a model and create/print a book. Then the private company copyrights it. They submit the building codes to the state legislators who adopt it as their building code model and thus they become law.

    To get a building code book you have to pay the company who developed them $2,000+ for their printed version. The state didn't have their own version, they used the same books I had to buy from the private company. The state didn't have a copy to give/sell me if they wanted too. When I protested (20 years ago) the state said not our problem we don't control the copyright, the company who developed and prints the books owns the copyright. We just adopted it as law.

    The article seems to be saying that now that the state owns the copyright. Things can change in 20+ years. Maybe as part of the deal the private company now transfers the copyright when the model is adopted or the reporter misunderstood. Still doesn't matter. It needs to get fixed. It's definitely a racket by the companies writing all these laws. The state will support them too. If it wasn't for the private companies the state would actually have to write their own laws and they're not setup to do that.

  • by Renraku ( 518261 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @07:10PM (#24866627) Homepage

    Someone I used to know back in the day built a porch add-on to their house. As everyone knows, there's plenty of codes to follow. He went down to city hall, got the necessary paperwork and guidelines, and built his porch. A month later, the city came and demanded that he knock it down, as it was too close to the road.

    He told them where he got the records, from city hall itself. He showed them the copies he made showing the rule he supposedly broke (too close to the road). The city told him that the book was old, and the law had since been revised. He got the whole "It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'"

    In the end the city made him remove the porch and he never built it back. Eventually, he sold his house and moved.

    The worst part about it is that the city couldn't be bothered to keep its laws publicly-available, but they can sure as hell enforce them.

    How many of you know the laws of your own city? What about important laws, such as traffic laws? Do you know, down to the letter, what your major and minor traffic laws are? What about self-defense? Do you have to run from an attacker or can you reasonably defend yourself if attacked? This is what I hate about laws in general. Rarely are they concise and simple to understand, but its difficult to get the exact text of the law in a lot of places.

  • Re:Lock him up! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @07:24PM (#24866795)

    Wisdom is indeed found in lower slashdot IDs.

    (and in owners of TLD email addresses. cor!)

  • by cpt kangarooski ( 3773 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2008 @08:07PM (#24867323) Homepage

    Ooh, close, but just short of the mark. In the late 18th century, 'science' would mean knowledge, or learning. Grammar and rhetoric would qualify as sciences, for example. It's only in more recent years that the word has become more of a synonym for the natural and physical sciences, e.g. physics or chemistry. For more on this, I refer you to your convenient pocket-sized unabridged OED.

    Kudos, however, for knowing that the useful arts refers to applied technologies. Other remnants of that meaning of the word 'art' can be seen in the patent field, such as 'prior art' or 'person having ordinary skill in the art' or 'state of the art technology.'

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