Oregon Law: owned by The Man.
Some of you might not know me, but we work together. That’s right, we legislate. We pass laws by proxy through the legislature, and directly too, when we vote on ballot measures.
But according to the Legislative Counsel Committee (LCC), we don’t own the laws we make; they do. And they get to decide who can and can’t publish them.
They’ve been saying this, apparently, since 1953, but it came to a head last April. That’s when when the LCC — a committee of several prominent legislators — issued a “takedown notice” to Justia.com, ordering them to stop publishing the Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) on the web. Justia is a company that publishes laws from various U.S. states, in a standard and well-indexed format. (Here’s an example from another state.)
Public.Resource.Org (P.R.O.), a non-profit partner of Justia, took exception, and made the case for a change — both out in the blogosphere, and by retaining counsel and challenging the decision on legal grounds.
P.R.O. got the committee’s attention; this Thursday, June 19, the LCC will hold a hearing, and will consider their arguments. I’ll be giving the case on behalf of Oregon Wikipedians and bloggers. Here are two key points:
Internet offers new opportunities
Our newly Internet-enabled democratic society has a chance embrace its civic duty in new and promising ways. The efforts of Justia.com, making the law more accessible to any interested party, only scratch the surface of what’s possible. Given the ability to publish Oregon’s laws, innovative organizations (for-profit, non-profit, and non-organized alike) will continue to find ways to make them more accessible to Oregonians. Increased access allows citizens to embrace their role as lawmakers, and as law abiders, to an extent never before possible.
Other early efforts include the List of Oregon ballot measures on Wikipedia, the Meyer Foundation’s recently launched, and acclaimed project Connec+ipedia, and the publication of specific laws as supporting exhibits on any number of blog posts.
Accuracy concerns are legitimate, but copyright law is the wrong tool
Those defending the LCC’s decision have expressed concern that nefarious web publishers might post inaccurate versions of the ORS.
While it’s true that this could happen, copyright law is the wrong tool for defending against it.
First and foremost, anyone publishing a public resource stakes a piece of their own reputation on its accuracy. An organization like Justia.org has plenty of incentive not to falsify the law: they would lose credibility and clients if they were ever revealed to have messed up.
If some unknown publisher were to post something called “Oregon law,” the public would (rightly) be skeptical of its accuracy. Publication does not confer truth; I’m sure we all remember our parents and teachers telling us “not to believe everything we read.” If we haven’t yet internalized that message, it’s high time we corrected that.
Not good enough? Fine — pass a law, then! I’d be happy to help get the word out. It’s perfectly reasonable to prohibit deliberate falsification of the law — but copyright law is far too crude an instrument for that. Claiming copyright prevents good faith organizations and individuals from advancing the public discourse; but a more targeted law, independent of the spurious “ownership” issue, could more effectively single out the “bad guys.”
Oregon law already takes this approach, in the case of the Seal of Oregon. The Seal’s design, enshrined in the 1859 Constitution, is clearly exempt from copyright, as it was created well before 1923.
But its use is restricted by ORS 186.023. Not by copyright law, but by a law pertaining explicitly to this valued resource.
A law prohibiting the publication of inaccurate versions of the ORS would make sense. But that’s not what the LCC has done here.
So let your legislators, and the members of the LCC, know that we need to keep the entire ORS in the public domain, and available for various advocacy groups to expand our civic discourse. Here’s a list of LCC members:
(Oh, sorry, maybe you shouldn’t take my word for it…after all, I might have made a fake list! Here’s a link to the official list.)