Law For All

The law belongs in the public domain (EFF, 14 Jan 2014) – For nearly two centuries it has been a basic precept that the law lives in the public domain. It’s simple: in a democratic society, people must have an unrestricted right to read and speak their own laws. Full stop. Of course, that principle means the law can never be subject to copyright restrictions. If any single entity owns a copyright in the law, it can buy, sell or ration the law, and make all sort of rules about when, where, and how we share it. People should never have to pay a fee to review and compare the rules and regulations they must obey, and no private entity should be the gatekeeper to the law. As an appellate court put it [I]t is hard to see how the public’s essential due process right of free access to the law (including a necessary right freely to copy and circulate all or part of a given ?law for various purposes), can be reconciled with the exclusivity afforded a private copyright holder . . . . Fortunately, open access crusaders like Public.Resource.Org (whose founder, Carl Malamud, is testifying before Congress today about this issue), and the Center for Information Technology Policy, have worked hard to correct the situation, by publishing legal and government documents and giving citizens the tools to do so themselves. A private company, Google, has also done its part by including court opinions in the Google Scholar database. Until recently, these folks haven’t had to deal with copyright infringement lawsuits as they worked to free the law. No longer. A group of standards-development organizations (SDOs) have banded together to sue Public.Resource.Org, accusing the site of infringing copyright by reproducing and publishing a host of safety codes that those organizations drafted and then lobbied heavily to have incorporated into law. The SDOs argue that they hold a copyright on those laws because the standards began their existence in the private sector, and were only later “incorporated by reference” into the law. That claim conflicts with the public interest, common sense, and the rule of law. The fundamental right to access and share the law does not disappear just because the law in question is a technical standard. And a good thing, too, because these standards are now a significant part of the laws that shape our lives. Once incorporated, they become mandatory requirements, just like any other law. The case involves crucial national standards like the national electrical codes, fire safety codes, and so on. Public access to such codes-meaning not just the ability to read them, but to publish and re-use them-can be crucial when there is an industrial accident, when there is a disaster such as the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, or when a homebuyer wants to know whether her house is code-compliant. Publishing the codes online, in a readily accessible format, makes it possible for reporters and other interested citizens to not only view them easily, but also to search and excerpt and generate new insights.

Provided by MIRLN.

Image courtesy of Vuono.