Did the US gov't sell exclusive access to its legislative history to Thomson West?

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud writes,
John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation alerted me to a situation about a month ago that we've been pursuing (with EFF's help) at the Government Accountability Office, which is an arm of the U.S. Congress.

The law librarians at GAO have compiled complete federal legislative histories from 1915 on. These are the definitive dossiers that track a bill through the hearing process and into law. If you want to divine the intent of Congress, this is where you go.

GAO cut a contract with Thomson West to have these documents scanned. Thomson West claims they have exclusive access to these public documents and even go so far as to boast that you should purchase this exclusive "product" from West because the GAO law librarians (public employees!) have done all the work for you!

If you're interesting in tracking this issue, I've created a Scribd group that has all the documents we've obtained so far. Next step: we asked for a copy of every document scanned under the FOIA laws!

Link (Thanks, Carl!)


  1. WTF??? Seriously, I have a scanner, I could have done their work; and if I took longer doing it, well, how much will this cost people? The documents themselves are public domain, surely, so how does scanning them make it exclusive?

  2. Reminds me of the OpenCRS project (via the CDT) to publicize Congressional Research Service documents.

    The Government Accountability Office is one of the few departments that doesn’t suck. Of course, they have no enforcement power, so they write reports like “This administration’s fiscal policy will destroy us all!”, and Congress says something like, “I’ll take that under advisement.”

    Like OpenCRS, this sounds like a fantastic project! Furthermore, as these reports are products of the Federal government of the USA, they are exempt from copyright, and could be mirrored on WikiSource and the Internet Archive as well.

  3. The documents themselves are public domain, surely, so how does scanning them make it exclusive?

    Surely. But perhaps Thomson West is claiming that scans are a derivative work, and thus copyrightable. Fuckos. Free the documents!

  4. First, I assume that people have been using these documents for research way before these guys did this footwork… Historians have been sorting through piles of crap for centuries, I doubt we’ll stop sorting through piles of crap now just because some of it is scanned and in an electronic format. Granted, it’s easier to find when it’s in an electronic format sometimes, but the physical archives aren’t going away anytime soon.

    Second, I guess I’m unclear as to what they are claiming they exclusively own- the documents themselves, or the, as Ken says, indexing mechanism. They clearly can not own the public domain documents, because they are public domain… right? Or am I misunderstanding the public in public domain.

    @ #4- Scans as the derivative work? Well, isn’t that silly? I mean, I could go a make a copy of a page of a book- that is not a derivative work. Some might call it copyright infringement, actually.


  5. I’d be ok with the gov’t contracting the grunt work out, but the information should still be public domain.

  6. Surprise surprise, America is for sale. Welcome to “Exxon/Yellowstone Park” and “Hallmark presents: Mount Rushmore.”

    I’m sure this is not authorized, but that the guy is trying to pull a fast one.

  7. I’m new & late for the party. Is there something I’m missing? Why don’t whoever wants to scann these docs just go ahead and scan & release to the public and put the ball back into Mr. West’s court. Then he has to prove exclusive rights to these public domain docs. The odest is upon him!

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