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In the fall of 2009, the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) put out a call for volunteers to participate in our new state working groups to support one of AALL’s top policy priorities: promoting the need for authentication and preservation of digital legal resources. It is AALL policy that the public have no-fee, permanent public access to authentic online legal information. In addition, AALL believes that government information, including the text of all primary legal materials, must be in the public domain and available without restriction.

The response to our call was overwhelming, with volunteers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia expressing interest in participating. To promote our public policy priorities, the initial goals of AALL’s working groups were to:

  • Take action to oppose any plan in their state to eliminate an official print legal resource in favor of online-only, unless the electronic version is digitally authenticated and will be preserved for permanent public access;
  • Oppose plans to charge fees to access legal information electronically; and
  • Ensure that any legal resources in a state’s raw-data portal include a disclaimer so that users know that the information is not an official or authentic resource (similar to what is included on the Code of Federal Regulations XML on Data.gov).

In late 2009, AALL’s then-Director of Government Relations Mary Alice Baish met twice with Law Librarian of Congress Roberta Shaffer and Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.org to discuss Law.gov and Malamud’s idea for a national inventory of legal materials. The inventory would include legal materials from all three branches of government. Mary Alice volunteered our working groups to lead the ambitious effort to contribute to the groundbreaking national inventory. AALL would use this data to update AALL’s 2003 “State-by-State Report on Permanent Public Access to Electronic Government Information and the 2007 “State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resourcesand 2009-2010 updates, which revealed that a significant number of state online legal resources are considered to be “official” but that few are authenticating. It would also help the Law Library of Congress, which owns the Law.gov domain name, with their own ambitious projects.

Erika Wayne and Paul Lomio at Stanford University’s Robert Crown Law Library developed a prototype for the national inventory that included nearly 30 questions related to scope, copyright, cost to access, and other use restrictions. They worked with the California State Working Group and the Northern California Association of Law Libraries to populate the inventory with impressive speed, adding most titles in about two months.

AALL’s Government Relations Office staff then expanded the California prototype to include questions related to digital authentication, preservation, and permanent public access. Our volunteers used the following definition of “authentication” provided by the Government Printing Office:

An authentic text is one whose content has been verified by a government entity to be complete and unaltered when compared to the version approved or published by the content originator.

Typically, an authentic text will bear a certificate or mark that conveys information as to its certification, the process associated with ensuring that the text is complete and unaltered when compared with that of the content originator.

An authentic text is able to be authenticated, which means that the particular text in question can be validated, ensuring that it is what it claims to be.

The “Principles and Core Values Concerning Public Information on Government Websites,” drafted by AALL’s Access to Electronic Legal Information Committee (now the Digital Access to Legal Information Committee) and adopted by the Executive Board in 2007, define AALL’s commitment to equitable, no-fee, permanent public access to authentic online legal information. The principle related to preservation states that:

Information on government Web sites must be preserved by the entity, such as a state library, an archives division, or other agency, within the issuing government that is charged with preservation of government information.

  • Government entities must ensure continued access to all their legal information.
  • Archives of government information must be comprehensive, including all supplements.
  • Snapshots of the complete underlying database content of dynamic Web sites should be taken regularly and archived in order to have a permanent record of all additions, changes, and deletions to the underlying data.
  • Governments must plan effective methods and procedures to migrate information to newer technologies.

In addition, AALL’s 2003 “State-By-State Report on Permanent Public Access to Electronic Government Information” defines permanent public access as, “the process by which applicable government information is preserved for current, continuous and future public access.”

Our volunteers used Google Docs to add to the inventory print and electronic legal titles at the state, county, and municipal levels and answer a series of questions about each title. AALL’s Government Relations Office set up a Google Group for volunteers to discuss issues and questions. Several of our state coordinators developed materials to help other working groups, such as Six Easy Steps to Populating Your State’s Inventory by Maine State Working Group coordinator Christine Hepler, How to Put on a Successful Work Day for Your Working Group by Florida State Working Group co-coordinators Jenny Wondracek and Jamie Keller, and Tips for AALL State Working Groups with contributions from many coordinators.

In October 2010, AALL held a very successful webinar on how to populate the inventories. More than 200 AALL and chapter members participated in the webinar, which included Kentucky State Working Group coordinator Emily Janoski-Haehlen, Maryland State Working Group coordinator Joan Bellistri, and Indiana State Working Group coordinator Sarah Glassmeyer as speakers. By early 2011, more than 350 volunteers were contributing to the state inventories.

Initial Findings

Our dedicated volunteers added more than 7,000 titles to the inventory in time for AALL’s June 30, 2011 deadline. AALL recognized our hard-working volunteers at our annual Advocacy Training during AALL’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, and celebrated their significant accomplishments. Timothy L. Coggins, 2010-11 Chair of the Digital Access to Legal Information Committee, presented these preliminary findings:

  • Authentication: No state reported new resources that have been authenticated since the 2009-2010 Digital Access to Legal Information Committee survey
  • Official status: Several states have designated at least one legal resource as official, including Arizona, Florida, and Maine
  • Copyright assertions in digital version: Twenty-five states assert copyright on at least one legal resource, including Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island
  • Costs to access official version: Ten states charge fees to access the official version, including Kansas, Vermont, and Wyoming
  • Preservation and Permanent Public Access: Eighteen states require preservation and permanent public access of at least one legal resource, including Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington

Analyzing and Using the Data

In July 2011, AALL’s Digital Access to Legal Information Committee formed a subcommittee that is charged with reviewing the national inventory data collected by the state working groups. The subcommittee includes Elaine Apostola (Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library), A. Hays Butler (Rutgers University Law School Library), Sarah Gotschall (University of Arizona Rogers College of Law Library), and Anita Postyn (Richmond Supreme Court Library). Subcommittee members have been reviewing the raw data as entered by the working group volunteers in their state inventories. They will soon focus their attention on developing a report that will also act as an updated version of AALL’s State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources.

The report, to be issued later this year, will once again support what law librarians have known for years: there are widespread issues with access to legal resources and there is an imminent need to prevent a trend of eliminating print resources in favor of electronic resources without the proper safeguards in place. It will also include information on: the official status of legal resources; whether states are providing for authentication, permanent public access, and/or preservation of online legal resources; any use restrictions or copyright claims by the state; and whether a universal (public domain) citation format has been adopted by any courts in the state.

In addition to providing valuable information to the Law Library of Congress and related Law.gov projects, this information has already been helpful to various groups as they proceed to advocate for no-fee, permanent public access to government information. The data has already been useful to advocates of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act and will continue to be valuable to those seeking introduction and enactment in their states. The inventory has been used as a starting point for organizations that are beginning digitization projects of their state legal materials. The universal citation data will be used to track the progress of courts recognizing the value of citing official online legal materials through adopting a public domain citation system. Many state working group coordinators have also shared data with their judiciaries and legislatures to help expose the need for taking steps to protect our state legal materials.

The Next Steps: Federal Inventory

In December 2010, we launched the second phase of this project, the Federal Inventory. The Federal Inventory will include:

  • Legal research materials
  • Information authored or created by agencies
  • Resources that are publicly accessible

Our goals are the same as with the state inventories: to identify and answer questions about print and electronic legal materials from all three branches of government. Volunteers from Federal agencies and the courts are already adding information such as decisions, reports and digests (Executive); court opinions, court rules, and Supreme Court briefs (Judicial); and bills and resolutions, the Constitution, and Statutes at Large (Legislative). Emily Carr, Senior Legal Research Specialist at the Law Library of Congress, and Judy Gaskell, retired Librarian of the Supreme Court, are coordinating this project.

Thanks to the contributions of an army of AALL and chapter volunteers, the national inventory of legal materials is nearly complete. Keep an eye on AALL's website for more information as our volunteers complete the Federal Inventory, analyze the data, and promote the findings to Federal, state and local officials.

Tina S. Ching is the Electronic Services Librarian at Seattle University School of Law. She is the 2011-12 Chair of the AALL Digital Access to Legal Information Committee.

 

Emily Feltren is Director of Government Relations for the American Association of Law Libraries.

 
 

[Editor's Note: For topic-related VoxPopuLII posts please see: Barbara Bintliff, The Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act Is Ready for Legislative Action; Jason Eiseman, Time to Turn the Page on Print Legal Information; John Joergensen, Authentication of Digital Repositories.]

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed. The information above should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal representation, please consult a lawyer.

The Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act, referred to as UELMA, is ready for introduction into state legislatures.  It has undergone its final proofing and formatting process by the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL, or ULC) and has been posted on NCCUSL’s archival Website at the University of Pennsylvania, and is soon to come to NCCUSL’s official site.  The Act will be sent to the American Bar Association’s (ABA's) House of Delegates for approval at the ABA Midyear Meeting in February, 2012 in New Orleans.

The UELMA addresses important issues in information management, providing sound guidance to states that are transitioning legal publications to digital formats.   The Act is citizen-oriented, and leaves all issues concerning commercial publishing to state policy and contract law.   Most importantly, the Act is outcomes-based, keeping it flexible in the face of changing technologies and evolving state practice.  A brief account of UELMA’s development and its main provisions is included in this posting.

The UELMA was drafted in response to a request from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), following the AALL’s 2007 National Summit on Authentication of Digital Legal Information. The purpose of the Summit was to bring national attention to the issues surrounding the rapid rise in the number of states publishing primary legal information resources electronically and, in some cases, cancelling print resources and publishing legal information only in electronic format.  Foremost among the issues were ensuring the trustworthiness of online legal resources  and preserving the electronic publications to provide for continuing accessibility.   The drafting of a uniform act on these topics was one of the top recommendations of the Summit’s attendees.

The ULC agreed to consider the development of a uniform law and appointed a Study Committee for that purpose.  The Study Committee recommended that a law be developed and a Drafting Committee was charged with the task.  After two years of consideration, including several face-to-face meetings, conference calls, and circulation of numerous drafts by email, the UELMA was read to and debated for the second time at the Annual Meeting of NCCUSL in July 2011.  After more than six hours of floor consideration, the NCCUSL Committee of the Whole passed the draft act, sending it to a Vote of the States.  UELMA passed its final hurdle with a positive Vote of the States, gaining approval by a vote of 45-0 (with 1 abstention and 7 jurisdictions not voting).

The UELMA, as it passed the Conference, requires a state that publishes official versions of its legal information in electronic format to do three things:

1.  Authenticate the information, by providing a method to determine that the legal material is unaltered from the version published by the state officer or employee that publishes the material;
2.  Preserve the information; and
3.  Ensure public accessibility on a permanent basis.

At a minimum, legal material that is covered by the Act includes the most basic of state-level legal information resources, including the state constitution, session laws, codified laws or statutes, and state agency rules with the effect of law.  In recognition of potential separation of powers issues, the UELMA does not automatically include judicial or executive materials, leaving it to the enacting state to decide whether and how to include those resources.  States may choose to include court rules and decisions, state administrative agency decisions, executive official documents, or almost any other information resources they designate as legal material.

For each type of legal material, the state must name a state agency or official as the “official publisher.”  The official publisher has the responsibility to authenticate, preserve, and provide access to the legal material. If legal material defined by the Act is published only electronically, that material must be designated “official” and meet the requirements of the Act.  If there is a print version of the legal material, an official publisher may designate the online version “official,” but the requirements of the Act to authenticate, preserve, and provide access must be met for the electronic version.

The requirements of the Act are not ended if the official electronic legal material is superseded, overruled, or otherwise ceases to be current law.   Legal material does not lose its value even if it is no longer in effect.  Accordingly, once a source is designated as official, it continues to be covered by the provisions of the UELMA.  Historical sources must be preserved and made available.

The Act does not affect any relationships between an official state publisher and a commercial publisher, leaving those relationships to contract law.  Copyright laws are unaffected by the Act. The Act does not affect the rules of evidence; judges continue to make decisions about the admissibility of electronic evidence in their courtrooms.

The comments to the UELMA provide a great deal of background on the decisions and intent of the Drafting Committee.  In many instances, the comments offer guidance to legislators who will be asked to consider the UELMA for passage.  The comments are included with the Act on the University of Pennsylvania’s Biddle Law Library Website.

Some issues specific to one of the three parts of the Act (authentication, preservation, and public access) are as follows.  More information on these points can be found in the comments to the Act.

Authentication (Sections 5 and 6) :

The Drafting Committee considered a wide range of approaches to authentication before settling on a policy of presenting a technology-neutral, outcomes-based document, leaving the choice of method used to authenticate legal material up to the states.  This approach also leaves it to each state’s discretion to change methods, as necessary or desirable.  What is required is that the official publisher provides a method for the user to determine that the electronic record is unaltered from the one published by the official publisher.

By the terms of the Act, the authenticated electronic legal material will receive a presumption of accuracy, the same presumption that is created by publication of legal material in print form.  The burden of proving inaccuracy shifts to the party that disputes the accuracy of the electronic legal material.   Electronic legal material from other states with substantially similar laws will receive the same presumption of accuracy.

Preservation (Section 7):

The Drafting Committee spent considerable time debating the preservation provisions.   The biggest issues were finding a way to describe what legal material would be covered by a preservation requirement, and how legal material should be preserved.

The Drafting Committee decided that, ultimately, all legal material covered by the Act’s authentication provisions should also be subject to its preservation requirements.  This was stated simply as requiring preservation of legal material “that is or was designated as official” under the Act.  This language requires that states preserve superseded or amended legal material, which retains importance despite its no longer being currently effective.  The comments to Section 7 make clear that the Drafting Committee intended the Act to cover not only the text of the law, but also the materials commonly published with the legal material.  This would mean that the lists of legislators and state officials typically published with session laws would be preserved, as would proposed or final state constitutional amendments, legislative resolutions, and any other type of information published with a legal material source.

The Drafting Committee decided to use an outcomes-based approach for the preservation requirements, similar to its approach to authentication.   The ultimate outcome of preservation is that legal material may be preserved in an electronic format, in print, or by whatever method the state may choose in the future; consistent with an outcomes-based approach, state policy and preference dictate the preservation method.

If legal material is preserved electronically, the UELMA requires that the integrity of the record be ensured, including through backup and disaster recovery preparations, and that the continuing usability of the legal material is ensured.  Recent natural disasters in the U.S. have highlighted the importance of disaster recovery preparations.  Further, information that is preserved in an unusable format is of no value.  The comments make clear that migration to new formats or storage media will be required from time to time.

The comments also note that the Drafting Committee intended that legally significant formatting be preserved.  The complexity of presentation of some legal materials -- evident in indentations, italicization, and numbering of internal subdivisions, for example -- may indicate or explain legislative or regulatory intent.  Preservation should not change the meaning of the legal material, but rather should ensure that the legal material is capable of being authenticated.

The Act recognizes that states have decades, and in some instances centuries, of expertise in preserving print materials, and does not specify preservation requirements or outcomes if the state chooses to preserve legal material in print.  Nor does the Act impose a duty on an enacting state to retrospectively convert its print material to an electronic format.  If, however, the state chooses to digitize previously non-electronic legal material, and if that newly electronic legal material is designated as official, then the requirements of the Act must be met.  Publication of legal material in an official electronic version subsequent to the adoption of the UELMA, even if the same legal material was published previously in print, triggers the requirements of the Act.

Permanent Access (Section 8):

Citizens must be informed as to government actions if they are to participate effectively in their government.  Legal material is an essential information source for citizens to access to become informed.   The UELMA recognizes this in requiring reasonable availability, on a permanent basis, of legal material, even that which is amended, repealed, or superseded.

The Drafting Committee debated conditions of access over several meetings, finally concluding that states already have long-term, relevant experience in making other materials available through archives, libraries, and state offices.  The enacting state has discretion to decide where, when, and how to provide access, including whether to charge fees for access.  Section 8’s requirement of permanent access does not require a state to provide unlimited access to its preserved legal information.  This drafting decision is consistent with the rest of the UELMA, which defers to state policy and practice in its other provisions.  Eventually, the Committee decided that the individual states could set their own requirements for access to legal material preserved under the Act, as long as the access is reasonable and in perpetuity.  For this reason, the Act does not address whether states can charge fees for access to preserved electronic legal material.

The Standards section of the Act (Section 9) directs official publishers of electronic legal material to consider developing standards and best practices as they choose and to implement methods for the authentication, preservation, and permanent access of electronic records.  The “Guiding Principles to Be Considered in Developing a Future Instrument,” the best practices document of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, were important guidelines that were repeatedly consulted in the drafting process.

Throughout its deliberations, the Drafting Committee was advised and informed by a large number of advisors and observers who came from federal and state governments, commercial legal publishers and software vendors, and a number of interested organizations.  Two American Bar Association advisors brought knowledge of and experience with technologies to the drafting process.  The observers were very helpful in assisting the Committee in its understanding of the possible impacts of proposed sections of the Act.  In some instances, the observers were able to explain existing and emerging technologies that might be used to accomplish the Act’s specified outcomes.  The Committee watched technology demonstrations and investigated various authentication processes already in effect.  The drafting process was strengthened by the level of support and expertise the advisors and observers brought, but, in the end, the Act was entirely the Committee’s work.

By designating the Committee’s product a uniform law, the ULC recognized the importance of the topic and urged wide adoption of the Act.  The final step in the UELMA’s development will be its introduction into state legislatures.   Bill sponsors are being identified, and the ULC anticipates the UELMA will be introduced in at least 8 states in January 2012, with the possibility of introduction in as many as 12.

The ULC has appointed an Enactment Committee for the UELMA to assist the larger ULC Legislative Committee with its charge to “endeavor to secure the enactment of [uniform] legislation.”   The Enactment Committee prepares “talking points” and summaries of the legislation, and works with individual legislatures, on occasion, to answer questions and further the introduction and approval of the Act.  Volunteers from several interested associations are also preparing to work towards the Act’s approval.  With strong support from the ULC and volunteers working on its behalf, by next summer the Uniform Act may itself become “legal material” in one or more states.

Barbara Bintliff
Barbara Bintliff is the Joseph C. Hutcheson Professor in Law at The University of Texas School of Law, and Director of Research at the School’s Tarlton Law Library and Jamail Center for Legal Research. She is The Reporter for The Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not legal advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice, consult a lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.

A Copyright Will Protect You From Pirates - A Copyright Will Protect You From Pirates - by Ioan Sameli - http://bit.ly/lJrePv. Licensed under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license

A Copyright Will Protect You From Pirates - by Ioan Sameli - http://bit.ly/lJrePv. Licensed under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license

In 2008, the State of Oregon sent a takedown notice to Tim Stanley, asking him to remove copyrighted material from Justia, Stanley's pioneering free law website. Such takedown notices are relatively common in the world of Napster, YouTube, BitTorrent, and LimeWire.  However, Stanley, the founder of FindLaw, and later Justia, wasn’t publishing music or video.  He was publishing the Oregon Revised Statutes on his website, and the State of Oregon claimed that Justia’s free version of the statutes was infringing its copyright.

That’s right: the State of Oregon claimed a copyright in its statutes, and it wanted to enforce that copyright against a company publishing them for free online.

The conflict was resolved amicably, with the state inviting Tim and Public.Resource.org’s Carl Malamud to Salem for a public hearing, in which the state decided to revoke its takedown demand. But the compromise was an uneasy one.  Oregon did not disclaim copyright in the statutes -- it merely agreed not to enforce its copyright claim against Justia and Public.Resource.org.  This limited waiver means that anyone else who publishes (or quotes) Oregon statutes would face a similar specter of copyright infringement.

This may seem like an isolated incident -- perhaps the work of a renegade legislative staff member with an ambitious view of copyright law.  But this incident isn’t isolated.  LexisNexis believes that it owns the Georgia Code.  And the statutes of Colorado, Wyoming, and Mississippi.  The free Websites of many state legislatures contain copyright notices warning the world that copying public law is illegal and punishable under copyright law.

Copyright in public law means that a state or a publisher could restrict fundamental rights in law.  Things like copying -- even citing the law in a brief -- could be considered an infringing use.  This makes lawyers, journalists, the public, and even judges into pirates when they quote from statutes.  It subjects innovators, entrepreneurs, and other publishers, who could introduce competition in legal publishing, to potential copyright liability.  It chills innovation and blocks the widespread publication of the law.

And although statutes are clearly in the public domain, they are one of the last bastions of closed-source content on the Internet. A combination of state budget cuts, our antiquated process for codifying the law, and aggressive contract terms from publishers have conspired to create private copyright claims in public law.

How did we get to this state of affairs?  How can any commercial publisher believe that it "owns" our public law?  Can a publisher’s claims to intellectual property in a state’s laws possibly be enforceable?  And what can we do about it?

I'm tired of copyright being used to monopolize public law. This post should establish once and for all that copyright doesn't protect public statutes, legislatures can't grant private copyrights, and contract code publishers who mix their editorial work with state statutes can only claim very limited protection under copyright. It's time for publishers, legislatures, and innovators to open state statutes.

How Can a Publisher Copyright Statutes It Didn’t Write?

At the outset, it seems crazy to say that publishers can copyright the law at all.  After all, legislators draft, debate, amend, and pass the law, and governors sign bills into law.  Most people consider statutes to be written by the people, since they are written on the people’s behalf by their elected representatives.

Publishers don’t write the law.  So how can they claim copyright in it?

Raw bills signed into law by governors aren’t the same thing as the codes that appear in bound volumes on the shelves. Statutes and codes are organized into outlines, with similar topics bunched together into titles, chapters, and sections. So, for example, a state's election laws might all appear within the same title in the state code.  This “codification” process is sometimes dictated in the bill itself (especially when the bill amends an existing statute on the books), but often the codification process is left up to editors after the fact.

In addition, most codified statutes have headlines (called “catchlines” in the art) at the top of each section, and these don’t appear in the bill versions of statutes -- they are later added by editors.

Codifiers and publishers add varying degrees of editorial enhancements to statutes, although many of these enhancements are pretty mechanical.  Hyperlinks between statute sections or to cases, or annotations showing where statutes have been cited, are good examples of additions that are more mechanical than editorial.

Finally, in the codification process, editors will occasionally need to resolve conflicts between a recently passed law and the rest of the code section where the law will be placed.  For example, some statutory titles have definitions that apply to all of the code sections beneath.  When a new law with conflicting definitions is codified in that section, an editor must resolve the conflicts (sometimes requiring commercial publishers to change an enacted statute, if you can believe that).

For most states, this codification process is simply a part of the legislature’s job.  They employ a team of editors in an office of codification counsel, and the legislature codifies passed bills into the state’s statutory code.

The codification process is difficult, time consuming, and expensive.  Many states (and Congress) employ teams of lawyers and legislative experts who organize and annotate their enacted statutes into codified volumes for publication.  However, some states outsource the editorial operations to legal publishers such as LexisNexis and West Publishing Co. (wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Anglo-Dutch publishing giant Reed Elsevier and Canadian mega-conglomerate Thomson Reuters, respectively).  And, apparently, publishers require in their contracts that the state grant to the publishers all of the intellectual property in the state codes that result.

Thus we have commercial publishers who claim a copyright in state statutes.

Is a Private Copyright in State Statutes Constitutional / Enforceable?

That briefly explains why a commercial publisher is even in a position to make a claim of intellectual property in statutes.  But the idea of state-owned (or private, foreign-owned) copyrights in public law is so counterintuitive, we should examine whether the claim is defensible.  Is copyright in state statutes enforceable?

Crown of King Cedric Rolfsson of An Tir by Jeff Martin / Godfrey von Rheinfels - http://bit.ly/lg40hb - Licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 License

Crown of King Cedric Rolfsson of An Tir by Jeff Martin / Godfrey von Rheinfels - http://bit.ly/lg40hb - Licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 License

The new crown copyright?

Historians would recognize this kind of claim to copyright in state law.  Before the American Revolution, the common law recognized the King’s (or Queen’s) right to copyright in a nation’s laws – the term was called “crown copyright.”  Any attempts to copy or quote the law must be authorized by the sovereign.  Although crown copyright still exists in the world, the United States for more than 200 years has stood for the rebellious idea that its law is owned by the people, and it may be used freely by them without the consent of the government.

The Founding Fathers considered copyright sufficiently important to address it in the Constitution's Article I, Section 8 grant of powers to Congress: The Congress shall have the power “to Promote the Progress of Science... by securing for limited Times to Authors... the exclusive Right to their... Writings.”

It was clear enough that copyright was the purview of the people’s representatives in Congress, not of the executive. Congress removed all doubt in enacting 17 U.S.C. § 105, which establishes that works of the federal government (not just statutes, but all works) are not protectable by copyright -- the federal government may not restrict the power of the people freely to use government works.

American copyright law is the opposite of crown copyright. Not only does the President not have a copyright in government works, but the entire federal government is barred from asserting copyright protection for government works.

Although the U.S. Code has little to say about copyright claims that states might assert in state codes, early American courts addressed the question several times, thereby establishing the legal framework for evaluating these claims.

Courts: State Codes Belong to the People

Courts have held time and time again that statutes may not be copyrighted, either by states or by private publishers. Some of our oldest copyright cases address issues of legal information; these cases generally held that the law is uncopyrightable.  See generally L. Ray Patterson & Craig Joyce, Monopolizing the Law: The Scope of Copyright Protection for Law Reports and Statutory Compilations, 36 UCLA L. Rev. 719 (1989), and cases cited therein.

First, the Constitution limits the protection of copyright to "authors," and courts have held that, in copyright law, government actors (whether state or federal) cannot be considered the authors of public law.

In Wheaton v. Peters, one of the reporters of early American Supreme Court opinions, Richard Peters, Jr., republished without permission twelve volumes of the reports of his predecessor Henry Wheaton. 33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 591 (1834).  In its first opinion on copyright, the Court held that Wheaton could have no copyright in the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. 33 U.S. at 668 ("The Court are unanimously of the opinion, that no reporter has or can have any copyright in the written opinions delivered by this court; and that the judges thereof cannot confer on any reporter any such right.")

Copyright Criminal by Alec Couros: http://bit.ly/kpbOYu - Licensed Under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 License

Copyright Criminal by Alec Couros: http://bit.ly/kpbOYu - Licensed Under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 License

The Supreme Court in Banks v. Manchester held that a publisher of Ohio Supreme Court opinions could not be liable in copyright, because neither the previous publisher nor the court could be considered an author under the Copyright Act of 1873. 128 U.S. 244 (1888) ("Judges . . . can themselves have no . . . proprietorship, as against the public at large, in the fruits of their judicial labors. . . . [N]o copyright could under the statutes passed by Congress, be secured in the products of the labor done by judicial officers in the discharge of their judicial duties.  The whole work done by the judges constitutes the authentic exposition and interpretation of the law, which, binding every citizen, is free for publication to all. . . .")

This rationale applies with even more force to legislatures, where statutes are written not by individual judges, but by the people's elected representatives.  If copyright law doesn't consider judges to be authors, it certainly won't consider a representative legislature to be one.

Second, courts have consistently held that citizens have a Constitutional due process right to have access to the laws that govern them. Because copyrights in state law limit that access, courts have time and again resolved the conflict by holding that state statutes may not be copyrighted.  See Davidson v. Wheelock, 27 F. 61 (C.C.D. Minn. 1866) (publisher can't copyright state statutes, even if state purports to give exclusive publishing rights); Howell v. Miller, 91 F. 129 (6th Cir. 1898) ("no one can obtain the exclusive right to publish the laws of a state") (Harlan, J., sitting by designation); Nash v. Lathrop, 142 Mass. 29, 6 N.E. 559 (Mass. 1886) ("Every citizen is presumed to know the law thus declared, and it needs no argument to show that justice requires that all should have free access to the opinions, and that it is against sound public policy to prevent this, or to suppress and keep from the earliest knowledge of the public the statutes or the decisions and opinions of the justices.")

State legislatures cannot claim copyright to their statutes, because legislatures are not considered authors for the purposes of copyright law, and because the public's due process rights to access the law serve as a limit on the copyrightability of state statutes.

Courts: Private Publishers Face Limited Copyright for Even Their Own Work

Even where they add material to public codes, publishers' copyright claims in that work are limited by the Copyright Clause of the Constitution and by copyright provisions in the U.S. Code.

The Copyright Clause requires that works involve some modicum of creativity, so purely mechanical operations such as adding page numbers or numbers in an outline are not copyrightable. Feist Pubs. Inc. v. Rural Telephone Servs. Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991). The publisher of a treatise about state statutes could claim copyright protection, but a publisher could not, for example, claim copyright in mechanical operations such as adding the next number in sequence to a codification, or collecting cases that cite to a section of the code. See also Matthew Bender & Co. v. West Publishing Co., 158 F.3d 693 (2nd Cir. 1998) (pagination in caselaw reporters is insufficiently creative to merit copyright protection).

Further, when legislatures subsequently sign the original works of publishers into law, the authored works pass into the public domain.  See Building Officials & Code Administrators Intl., Inc. v. Code Tech., Inc.., 628 F.2d 730 (1st Cir. 1980) ("BOCA") (model code authored by private organization entered public domain when adopted by the State of Massachusetts); Veeck v. Southern Bldg. Code Congress Intern., 293 F.3d 791 (5th Cir. 2002) (once the government takes action and passes the model code into law, “there is no reason to believe that state or local laws are copyrightable.”).

Finally, the act of organizing new laws into the outline format of the existing code probably deserves very little copyright protection.  Where a legislature amends a particular code section, the publisher's act of processing the amendment is not creative enough to justify copyright protection under Feist: The process of placing a new law where it belongs in an existing code is often either so straightforward or so arbitrary as not to qualify as a creative act.

How Copyright Law is Applied to State Codes

Based on this discussion of copyright law, we can evaluate the copyright claims that publishers would likely make about state statutes.  The following seems crystal clear:

Law Books by Mr. T in DC: http://bit.ly/uhkyk - Licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 License

Law Books by Mr. T in DC: http://bit.ly/uhkyk - Licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 License

1. Federal statutes (and all federal materials, really) are uncopyrightable, period. Congress has prescribed this by law, and in any event, the U.S. Code is codified by the federal Office of Law Revision Counsel, not by a private publisher.

2. For state statutes, the underlying statutes themselves are almost certainly uncopyrightable. Courts consider them to have been written (constructively) by the people, and due process requires that people have unimpeded access to the laws that govern them.

Although courts haven't addressed the examples below, the caselaw suggests that private publishers can't claim much copyright protection in state codes:

Where public employees of states codify, organize, annotate, or write catchlines, is the resulting compilation copyrightable by the state? Courts might hold that the organization of statutes and catchlines meet the minimum constitutional requirements of creativity outlined in Feist. (Annotations, on the other hand, which are effectively lists of citing articles and cases, are uncopyrightable “mere facts”).

However, the same due process claims that protect the public’s right to the underlying statutes also protect their right to the codified statutes, especially if the codified version is the state’s “official” version of the statutes. Moreover, states and state employees are agents of the people, and courts are likely to hold that the work product of states and state employees is owned collectively by the people in the public domain. The official code, when codified by the state, is uncopyrightable.

Where states hire a publishing company to codify their enacted statutes, is the resulting compilation copyrightable? When a state outsources its work to private publishers, the publishers are agents of the state. Under agency law, publishers could have no more claim to copyright than the contracting agent could.  So if the state cannot claim copyright in its code, it cannot circumvent the copyright law by contracting the work to a private publisher.

The definitive copyright treatise Nimmer on Copyright adds that contract law is an important part of the analysis: Nimmer points out that that if the state’s publishing contract classifies the publisher’s codification as a “work for hire,” then the state owns the resulting intellectual property on behalf of its citizens. 1 M. Nimmer & D. Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright §§ 5.12 n.29 and 5.13[B][2]. Where states specify in their contracts that contractors are performing the work of the state, are agents of the state, or are performing a work for hire, courts would be unlikely to enforce copyrights for the agent to which the principal is not entitled.

Could a publisher claim copyright in its organization of a state code? Although copyright law protects the "compilation" of otherwise uncopyrightable elements (the classic example being an anthology of poetry, in which the poems themselves have passed into the public domain, but in which the author can claim copyright for their selection and arrangement) -- publishers of state codes have much less discretion in their work than do publishers of other kinds of compilations.  Publishers of state codes may not, for example, decide which enacted laws to include in the code.  There is no element of selection.  And the code has a pre-established organizational structure that the publisher must follow in the codification process.  The placement of a passed law in the code section to which it most closely relates may require skill, but it is not creative for purposes of the copyright law.

In short, courts should protect original, creative editorial work, such as articles about the law written by an author.  But they should not give private publishers copyright protection where the publishers are performing functions necessary for codifying the official version of the code (such as organizing by topic or writing catchlines). Adoption of this view would protect new creative works while vindicating citizens' important due process rights in public domain law.

Policy: Should We Root for Publishers?

Printing Press at the GPO by Ed Walters - Licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 License

Printing Press at the GPO by Ed Walters - Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 License

Commercial legal publishers would likely argue that copyright should protect their creative work. Writing catchlines and organizing codes require expertise, and are expensive.  If anyone could copy the completed work, they might argue, publishers would never be able to afford to employ editors, and so would never be able to afford to pursue this line of business.  Legal publishing is a for-profit enterprise, and companies should be allowed to recoup their costs, even for state work.

However, when the work is on public law, the analysis must be different.  First, there are important policy implications to limiting access to statutes.  Copyright is not the only way for publishers to be rewarded for their labors.  And if courts choose not to enforce private copyright in public law, publishers could simply charge each state a fair rate to compensate them for their efforts.

Second, if publishers are using state contracts to create proprietary codes, the publishers are effectively receiving corporate welfare, a taxpayer-funded subsidy to create private works. Especially in times of limited budgets, states should be wary of spending taxpayer dollars in this way.  Taxes are well spent to create public infrastructure, such as highways (or statutes).  But taxpayers would revolt if states financed toll roads owned by foreign transportation conglomerates.  Public financing of copyrighted statutes is no different.

How States Can Take Back their Codes

Just this week, the Uniform Law Commission passed the Uniform Electronic Legal Materials Act, designed as a blueprint for state laws that would require preservation and authentication of state statutes published online, while making those statutes permanently available to the public.  The Act would have states designate a state employee or agency, not a private publisher, to serve as an "official publisher" of statutes for purposes of authenticating and preserving state codes.  To preserve the public's permanent access under the Act, states should take whatever steps are necessary to restore statutes to the public domain. The Act thus points to the central role that the government, not private publishers, must play in the stewardship of our state statutes.

There are some straightforward ways in which states could clear up any confusion about the copyrightability of their state statutes.

States could hire their own codification counsel, do the work of statutory codification in-house, and make clear that the end result is in the public domain.  To the extent that private publishers sell proprietary versions of the code, those publishers may use the public version of the code as a starting point, and copyright their improvements. This approach is recommended as a best practice, but it may not be feasible for all states in difficult economic times.

Separately, to preserve statutes in the public domain, a state could contract with a commercial publisher for private codification services, but specify clearly in its contract that the resulting code is a work made for hire, and, consequently, is in the public domain.  In this case, it would make sense for the state to require the publisher to deliver a code free of proprietary commercial enhancements so that the work may pass completely into the public domain.  If publishers wish to add proprietary content, they may use the public code as their starting point.  But such proprietary content would not be subsidized by tax dollars.

Finally, legislatures can simply enact the codified statutes.  Congress does this with the codified U.S. Code, effectively blessing the work of its Office of Law Revision Counsel in codifying statutes.  If a legislature merely enacted its code by voice vote, the Code would pass into the public domain.

Conclusion

Commercial publishers perform an important role in codifying state statutes.  Their expertise and skill are vital to protecting our rule of law, which is rooted in an informed citizenry. However, statutes are by definition in the public domain, and rightly so.  Efforts to own our public law, by American-owned or foreign-owned publishers, violate both our understanding of copyright and our due process rights to access the laws that govern us. When states work together with private publishers to codify their official statutes, neither law nor policy suggests that the publishers may own the resulting codes.

Ed WaltersEd Walters is the CEO of Fastcase. Although nobody at Fastcase believes statutes are copyrightable, the company has no plans to be the test case for this proposition, thank you very much. Views expressed here are his own.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not legal advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice, consult a lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.