Open Access to Statutes

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James Grimmelmann wrote a nice primer on copyright, statutes and open access, and how publishing statutes openly online benefits democracy: Copyright, Technology, and Access to the Law: "Recently, the state of Oregon has used copyright law to threaten people who were publishing its laws online. Can they really do that? More to the point, why would they? This essay will put the Oregon fracas in historical context, and explain the public policies at stake. Ultimately, it’ll try to convince you that Oregon’s demands, while wrong, aren’t unprecedented. People have been claiming copyright in ‘the law’ for a long time, and at times they’ve been able to make a halfway convincing case for it. While there are good answers to these arguments, they’re not always the first ones that come to hand. It’s really only the arrival of the Internet that genuinely puts the long-standing goal of free and unencumbered access to the law within our grasp."

Info/Law notes that a community of users is almost done placing the House Report on the 1976 Copyright Act online for easier public access to public information. An Open Access Success Story: "Working in irregular bursts over the last eight months, volunteers at the English-language Wikisource project (a sister site of the much better known Wikipedia encyclopedia) have proofread all 370 page scans from the original House report, and the results have been stitched together to form a single document: Copyright Law Revision (House Report No. 94-1476). As the accompanying color-coded chart reveals, most pages of the report have been proofread by at least two different users, and the rest should be finished within a few weeks if current trends continue."

Of course, reading through statutes or legislative history on the web doesn't have the same feel as reading it on microfiche in a dusty corner in the basement of a law library, but nostalgia alone provides no counter to the public good of having this material online for free access. It also demonstrates the advantages that the internet has for democratic principles.

Update (6/20). Justia reports, Oregon decides not to enforce any copyright claims on the Oregon Revised Statutes: "Oregon's Legislative Counsel Committee had a meeting this morning to discuss the copyright claim on the Oregon Revised Statutes. After taking legal counsel from Dexter Johnson, talking with Karl Olson, Carl Malamud, three Oregon citizens and myself, they unanimously voted to not to enforce any copyright claims on the Oregon Revised Statutes."

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While it is not quite the archaic feeling of microfiche, Wikisource does allow the reader to step through the pagescans one by one using the navigation arrows at the top of each page. Clicking on the image zooms in on the selected area of the pagescan. As some of the images are landscape, Firefox users may find it useful to install the Rotate Image extension.

Wikisource is 75% finished transcribing the Senate report written to accompany the Copyright Act of 1976 and has recently started on Volume 1 of the U.S. Statutes at Large, with the first 144 pages ready for proofreading.

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