Oregon continues to insist that its laws are copyrighted and can't be published

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,
Boing Boing readers may remember some static from the State of Oregon about whether their statutes are public or private.

Tim Stanley, the CEO of Justia and myself have had three phone calls with the staff of the Office of the Legislative Counsel, examined their proposed so-called "public" license, and believe we've established that we're going to have to agree to disagree. As such, we've retained counsel and referred the matter to him for the next steps.

Readers may be interested in a recent post by William Patry, author of the 7-volume treatise on copyright, on the subject Oregon goes wacka wacka huna kuna. Despite the technical legal words used in the title, he does a great job explaining the basic concepts.

Link See also: Oregon: our laws are copyrighted and you can't publish them


  1. I’m totally ok with making the laws of the state private IP, but that means the state loses the argument that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

  2. The other interesting area along these lines is fire, building, electrical, etc. codes. They are developed and published by private organizations, but then state and local governments adopt these as their law. The governments then won’t make copies of them available to the public, citing the copyright, which still resides with the private organizations.

    The bottom line is that any private citizen who wants to know what his city’s law is for building standards has to buy an expensive book from the Inernational Code Council. This is just wrong.

  3. This is worse than C-SPAN trying to copyright footage of congressional hearings. I know that a work of a federal employee in official capacity is exampt from copyright, why isn’t the same true for the states?

    @Mullingitover: That would be a novel defense; “Your honor, I was stumbling around naked in public because I couldn’t afford to check the laws to see if it was OK!”

  4. REL Oregon continues to insist that its laws are copyrighted and can’t be published

    Because they “say so”?

    Reminds me of the guy who not too long ago got in the center of the Denver State Capitol building and while clutching a weapon announced to everyone he was “the emperor” and said he was going to take over the state government. Why? well, because he “said so”.

    He was shot to death with multiple bullets.

  5. I misread this whole thing to mean that Oregon has classified their laws as TOP SECRET.

    Probably not an entirely wacky thought, considering that some people aren’t allowed to know what charges have been lodged against them.

  6. Are Oregonians or anyone else (like tax preparers) permitted to read the state-printed tax forms? Can’t read = can’t pay.

    How about driver’s licenses? “Yes, officer, I have a card in my wallet that may be my driver’s license, but I’ve been afraid to look at it. I don’t think that I’m allowed to let you read it either.”

  7. Chuck, are you referring to Guantanamo-type detainees or more mainstream defendants? I’m not defending the former, just curious.

  8. God, I seem to remember the Roman Catholic Church trying something like this… 500 years ago.

    Better watch out they don’t try burning you at the stake .

  9. >Chuck, are you referring to Guantanamo-type detainees or more mainstream defendants? I’m not defending the former, just curious.

    Yes. (I probably should have specified.) I was only referring to those cases involving terrorism, alleged war crimes, and other classified matters.

    As far as I know, people haven’t started receiving redacted parking tickets and traffic tickets in the mail (yet).

  10. Oregon, the liberal stronghold, wouldn’t want its laws published? We are so, so lost. It’s not that they try, that’s to be expected. It’s that they always get away with it.

  11. Yeah, it’s wacky. And it gets a little wackier if you read the actual copyright claim of the state. It doesn’t claim copyright over the actual text of the laws–just the numbering scheme, tables of contents, and other organizing features.

    This is very much a relic of the print era, but the relevant laws (and I think it’s actually the Oregon constitution that reserves copyright on Oregon government information–but don’t quote me on that I’m too lazy to look it up) are also being used to lock up data across the state. I bump up against this in my job as a GIS data librarian–some counties and cities gladly give me their data for free (“We’re just happy someone at the U might look at it.”) while others charge exorbitantly because they can claim copyright. Moreover, the cost bears little relation to value: the largest local government in the state will sell me a CD-ROM of most of their data for $65. Similar data from a different county might run $1500.

  12. This is ridiculous. I’m all for state’s rights, being southern and a relic of the confederacy, but this can’t at all be lawful. Or if it is, it shouldn’t be.

  13. Could it not also be argued that the Oregon government is composed of employees of the People, and copyright is vested in the employer as it would for a private company? It seems to me that this is like someone telling his boss that the quarterly sales report is copyrighted and the boss can’t see it.

  14. There is no copyright issue here. This is a freedom of information issue and is clearly tied to something other than serving the public’s best interest. laws get changed and there is a defense that can be made for “ignorance of a changed law.” I’ve sceen that defense used in court and with winning results.

  15. Too many laws making everyday life more difficult, too little culture making life more meaningful; modern society sucks.

  16. Antiglobalism, parts of it suck, but there is much to be very excited about. Think of all the laws you can break just for kicks?

  17. I have to agree with others… If I don’t have a reasonable level of access to Oregon’s laws- than I shouldn’t be held accountable to them under the whole “Ignorance of the law…” philosophy.

    Laws should be public record and should be easily accessible if those they apply to are to be held accountable to them.

    Democracy is supposed to be government by and for the people. People vote on, and therefore should retain ownership of the laws passed by that government. How can you copyright something like that?

  18. The headline here is somewhat mis-leading. It should be something along the lines of – “Despite laws that Oregon law should be published economically and broadly available to most citizens, it is instead pushing a proprietary version that costs nearly $400 and their website sux.”

    This is not about copyrighting the law. While I agree with Malamud’s argument that the Oregon lege hasn’t lived up to their responsibilities, he doesn’t address the core complaint of the takedown notice, which is –

    “Although the Committee does not claim a copyright in the text of the law itself, the Committee does claim a copyright in the arrangement and subject-matter compilation of Oregon statutory law, the prefatory and explanatory notes, the leadlines and numbering for each statutory section, the tables, index and annotations and such other incidents as are the work product of the Committee in the compilation and publication of Oregon law. Many of these elements appear unchanged on your website, with no copyright notice or attribution given to the Committee. Moreover, at the bottom of each web page on which a segment of the Oregon Revised Statutes appears, Justia Inc. claims its own copyright.”

    The way you format and design non-copyright material CAN be copyrighted. Also, Justia doesn’t seem to be able to work from a postion of good faith since they simply replaced the Committee’s copyright notice with their own copyright.

    It seems an alternative might be to post the laws on a wiki, strip away the formatting and prefatory comments, etc., and present that domain to the state of Oregon as a gift.

  19. The state of California copyrights much of its state-produced (taxpayer-financed) materials. As one example, the California Department of Education copyrights its student learning standards (the guidelines about what kids are supposed to learn and what schools are accountable for teaching) and prohibits any use of them except on their web site (and perhaps by certain publishers who pay them to republish).

    In working with a school district who wanted to make these standards available to their teachers as an ebook on mobile devices, we were told in writing by a lawyer for CDE that this was forbidden.

    This is a travesty. It’s no wonder California is so far behind. Their policymakers don’t have a clue.

    All government-produced materials should be open licensed.

  20. If the numbering scheme is copyrighted separate from the laws, does that therefore imply that it is not considered part of the law?

    Thus, is it the case in Oregon that legislation revising laws must identify the text being revised by including that text and not by referring to numbering arbitrarily imposed by a third party?

    Could a lawyer on the verge of retiring submit briefs referring to laws using his own numbering scheme, and when called on it by the judge point out that a) the numbering that the judge is expecting is provided by a third party, not the state, and is not a part of the laws, that b) there’s nothing in the laws that requires using the numbering scheme imposed by that third party and that c) there’d be good grounds to challenge any laws that said the equivalent of “You must use the numbering scheme that you must purchase rights to from company X?”

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