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Government Your Rights Online

City Laws Only Available Via $200 License 411

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 moranar ( 632206 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:34AM (#30086464) Homepage Journal

    What part of '[the laws will] be made available on the Web for free" didn't you understand?

    I assume the normal means of studying the laws of Schenectady are still available.

  • by Unequivocal ( 155957 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:34AM (#30086466)

    True, but they can copyright the format and indexes to the content. WestLaw has been doing this for years with the Federal Case law and making a killing. Recently open indexes of Federal Case law have been taken more seriously and many judges accept both WestLaw index citation and the open format. But for a while WestLaw effectively owned the Federal Case statutes b/c they copyrighted their index of them, and you could only file in Federal court by using that index scheme.

    So there are ways to use copyright to lock down what should be public record, and this company may be using such a strategy to charge $200 for their version of the content.

  • by MarkvW ( 1037596 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:34AM (#30086474)

    Here's what the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has said about Schenectady's brain-dead legal position:

    "For these reasons, we reject SBCCI's deconstruction of Banks into merely utilitarian and factual issues. Instead, we read Banks, Wheaton, and related cases consistently to enunciate the principle that "the law," whether it has its source in judicial opinions or statutes, ordinances or regulations, is not subject to federal copyright law."

    Veeck v. Southern Bldg. Code Congress Intern., Inc.
    293 F.3d 791
    C.A.5 (Tex.),2002

  • by Rary ( 566291 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:37AM (#30086518)

    That doesn't make charging to know the law legitimate.

    The point is that they're not charging to know the law. According to TFA, you can read the law "at the Schenectady Public Library, Schenectady County Supreme Court Library, the Schenectady County Community College Library and several other locations". And as of next year you'll be able to read and search the law online for free. In the meantime, if you want a copy to take home, you have to pay for it.

  • by Maximum Prophet ( 716608 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:41AM (#30086600)

    Do people on a jury have to pay $200 as well? As it can be real hard to be on a jury and not know the law.

    I've been selected for Jury duty, and in the written material it said that the Judge would tell us what the law is, and that was the law, not what we knew. It's because the Judge is supposed to interpret the law. The jury is only supposed to determine the facts. i.e. The jury determines that Bob killed Joe. It's up the the judge to say it's illegal for Bob to kill Joe and what the parameters of punishment might be. In some states the Judge then determines the sentence, in others, the jury picks a sentence consistent with what the Judge has determined. Ask a lawyer for clarification in your state.

  • Misleading Headline (Score:3, Informative)

    by deiol ( 741017 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:42AM (#30086622)

    The headline states that the laws are only available via a $200 license, but that is not the case. The laws currently exist in two forms, a paper version and an electronic version that is stored in a proprietary format. The paper copy is held in multiple 3-ring binders and would cost $656 to reproduce, and in order to read the proprietary electronic format you would need to license the software required for $200. No one ever said the laws themselves were copyrighted. They are also available to view for free in multiple public locations, "White said copies of the code, with updates early this year, are on file at the Schenectady Public Library, Schenectady County Supreme Court Library, the Schenectady County Community College Library and several other locations."

    So you can see that no one is preventing anyone from viewing the laws, the problem is if you want your own personal copy it just isn't financially feasible at this time. Luckily the city realizes this and they're working to get a copy of the code online, which will be accessible for free. It shouldn't be this difficult to view city laws electronically so searching is simpler, and this is a good example of why we shouldn't use proprietary formats. Although your content is owned by you, you're limited to what you can do with it because of the format it's in.

  • by DustyShadow ( 691635 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @10:45AM (#30086648) Homepage

    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.

    That judge is an idiot. You weren't ignorant of the laws. You were ignorant of the facts. Sorry that happened.

  • by digitalunity ( 19107 ) <digitalunity&yahoo,com> on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:01AM (#30086828) Homepage

    Something kind of similar happened to me in 2006. I was pulled over and ticketed speeding in a neighboring county. I paid the ticket late, but called the courthouse to be sure there was no late fee. She said there was not a late fee.

    Well, she was wrong. They assessed a late fee and my payment was insufficient. The court did not send me any notice that my ticket was unpaid. The DMV said they sent me a letter letting me know my license was suspended, but I never received it. A year later, I was pulled over and given a ticket for driving on a suspended license. I explained to the judge that I did not know it was suspended, but he said it was not the courts responsibility to notify me that I owed them money.

    In short, the incorrect information given to me by the neighboring court ended up costing me almost $500 for late fees, the ticket and my license reinstatement. I think it's ridiculous the judge upheld the Driving While Suspended even though I had no idea my license was suspended!

  • by biryokumaru ( 822262 ) * <> on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:08AM (#30086926)

    Our justice system is built on the premise that it is better to let 10 guilty people go free than to punish one innocent person.

    So, something like 9% of prisoners in jail being innocent is a good target? I believe the quote you were referring to was actually:

    Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

    - English jurist William Blackstone, from a UCLA [] page

    Which is stupid. There should be no innocent people in jail. Period. People spend their lives [] in prison for crimes they didn't commit, because the legal system is mass producing justice. It's not good.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:30AM (#30087174)

    The City of Schenectady dismissed the entire police department after an internal review board found that not one officer, chief on down, was legitimately conducting police business. They pulled in state police and police from surrounding areas to fill the gaps

  • by Minwee ( 522556 ) <> on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:30AM (#30087176) Homepage

    What part of '[the laws will] be made available on the Web for free" didn't you understand?

    This part:

    At the request of staffers at City Hall, Eiss filled out a form, which he later learned was a formal request for records access under New York's Freedom of Information Law. A week later, he received a response saying his request was denied.

    The reason: "Materials requested are protected by copyright and release of materials is through exclusive license only."

    Where, you know, the laws are _not_ being made available to mere citizens.

    That's why the city has contracted with a national company called General Code for about $20,000 to create a comprehensive, searchable electronic version of the code that eventually will be posted on the Web and available to all.

    City employees have access to the current electronic version through General Code, but "that is strictly proprietary and copyrighted," Van Norden said. "They own the electronic code and we use it under an electronic licensing agreement."

    In case "reading the excerpts from the article" is still too long, let me sum it up for you: When asked for a copy of the City code, L. John Van Norden, acting on behalf of the City of Schenectady, informed Arthur Eiss that he not only couldn't have it, but that he was not even allowed to access the same copy which City employees use. The fact that the company which has created this problem promised to eventually make a publicly available version doesn't help anyone right now.

    Now that there are a few more details, is that part easier to understand?

  • by moranar ( 632206 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:38AM (#30087286) Homepage Journal

    Oh, cool. Then I guess you missed where they noted that

    But Eiss also indicated he might find it sufficient to review a paper copy of the code, as needed, at a library.

    White said copies of the code, with updates early this year, are on file at the Schenectady Public Library, Schenectady County Supreme Court Library, the Schenectady County Community College Library and several other locations.

  • by dapyx ( 665882 ) on Friday November 13, 2009 @11:53AM (#30087476) Homepage
    Federal laws, like all federal works, are public domain.

    Works made by the state and city-level government are, however, copyrighted.
  • Mod Parent Up (Score:3, Informative)

    by Pollux ( 102520 ) <> on Friday November 13, 2009 @01:31PM (#30088716) Journal

    Completely agree. I was first frustrated and upset with what I read, because we the people cannot permit government to hide our laws from us. That's exactly what the summary implied. But when I RTFA, I read exactly what the parent said...the laws are available for reading at THE PUBLIC LIBRARY, as they should be.

    The guy can just go to the library, research things the old-fashioned way, pay for making photocopies, and wait for this company to finish the project they were contracted to do.

  • by s73v3r ( 963317 ) < minus berry> on Friday November 13, 2009 @01:51PM (#30089004)
    He says he paid the ticket (the part where he mentioned that he mailed it in, presumably with payment. He could have mailed in a ticket envelope with rat feces in it, but I think they would have remembered the address from that). I don't know about any of you, but any ticket that I've ever mailed in, I've never gotten anything back on. So once he sent payment for the ticket, there really is no reason to believe that something was wrong.
  • The Oregon situation (Score:3, Informative)

    by Baloo Uriza ( 1582831 ) <> on Friday November 13, 2009 @02:31PM (#30089650) Journal
    The Oregon situation isn't this eggregious. Oregon does not charge for access to the state laws, in fact, the state has had them online for years [], persuant to the Oregon Sunshine Act of 1973 []

The Force is what holds everything together. It has its dark side, and it has its light side. It's sort of like cosmic duct tape.