Oregon Says Its Laws Are Copyrighted, Can’t Be Published

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A battle has been going on for about three weeks now between the state of Oregon, which has laws, and some legal websites that have been publishing those laws.  Oregon is insisting that they not do so.  Justia.com, for example, which had been providing the Oregon statutes online for free, got a cease-and-desist letter from the state in April telling Justia to stop.

Another thing that should be stopped is the phrase "cease and desist."  Since both of those words mean "stop," you only need one.  As it is, the phrase describes something that is literally impossible to comply with: once you’ve ceased (or desisted), you can’t do it again.  But since we are still stuck with "aiding and abetting," which means "helping and helping," I guess this one will probably be around for a while too.

Anyway, a federal law states that the government claims no copyright in federal statutes, but that doesn’t apply to the states.  Oregon appears to be the first to try to keep its laws from being published, though.  Why would a state want to do this?  Hard to say.  It might have something to do with the many references on its own website to the opportunity to buy your very own set of the Oregon Revised Statutes, which sure would come in handy if you wanted to know what the law was!

The owners of Justia and of another site, Public.Resource.Org, have objected to the state’s Request to Stop, saying that good public policy would be to make the text as widely available as possible.  (You can see all the correspondence here.)  The state then argued that its duty was fulfilled by putting the text of the laws on its website.  One problem with that, according to the objectors, is that there are some errors in the HTML code used to render the statutes — according to Public Resource, a little over 500,000 errors — that may make much of the text unreadable in some browsers.  Problem two: the state does not even guarantee that the text it has posted is accurate:

Although efforts have been made [the State said on its website] to match the database text to the official legal text they represent, substantive errors or differences may remain. It is the user’s responsibility to verify the legal accuracy of all legal text.

And where might a user verify the legal accuracy of said legal text?  Why, in the "only Official and Certified edition available," namely the volumes you can order from the Office of Legislative Counsel for $390.  Visa and Mastercard are accepted.

William Patry, author of the treatise "Patry on Copyright," who now has a blog, has weighed in on the side of the websites, suggesting that "Oregon should rein in its wayward Legislative Counsel."  (Another post there discusses an ongoing dispute between the band Ok Go, whose video for "Here It Goes Again" won a Grammy, and the makers of Berocca vitamins, who are running an ad using a similar concept, thus presenting "what may become the world’s first legal dispute over treadmill dancing.")

It looks like things may be headed for a showdown.  In a letter dated May 2, the sites’ copyright counsel has notified the state that his clients do not agree that the laws are copyrighted, and that they intend to put the Oregon Revised Statutes back online by June 2, 2008.

Link: Boing Boing (April 30)
Link: Ars Technica (April 16)
Link: Oregon Revised Statutes 2007 (online edition)