Municipal codes of DC, free for all -- liberated without permission

Today, I was lucky enough to get another one of rogue archivist Carl Malamud's boxes of awesome. It's a copy of the municipal codes of DC, which are laws that you're required to follow, but aren't allowed to see without paying. As with the last time I got one of these packages, it's because Carl has scanned and OCR'ed and cleaned up these codes, and has now published them for all to see. Here's the unboxing pics.


“No Codification Without Promulgation”

WHEREAS, the District of Columbia has published the OFFICIAL CODE, containing the laws, general and permanent in their nature, relating to or in force in the District of Columbia; and

WHEREAS, the OFFICIAL CODE is only available for purchase for $803.00, plus tax and shipping, from the designated official publisher, the West Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Thomson Reuters Corporation, a foreign corporation; and

WHEREAS, the OFFICIAL CODE contains a prominent notice that the material is “COPYRIGHT 2001 by the District of Columbia” and “All Rights Are Reserved”; and

WHEREAS, the only online version of the OFFICIAL CODE available to the public is accessible from the official publisher, which limits access through outdated technical mechanisms and poor design, such as a lack of a permanent Internet address (“permalink”), and further limits access through terms of use which prohibit the public from making copies of the code; and

WHEREAS, in a nation governed by the rule of law and founded on the principles of freedom of expression, due process, and equal protection, people must have the right to freely read, know, and speak the laws by which we as a people choose to govern ourselves; and

WHEREAS, the Supreme Court of the United States has unequivocally ruled that the law cannot be subject to copyright in Wheaton v. Peters (33 U.S. 591, 1834), when the Court unanimously held that “no reporter has or can have any copyright in the written opinions delivered” by the Court; and

WHEREAS, the Supreme Court of the United States has repeatedly reaffirmed this principle, stating for example in Banks v. Manchester (128 U.S. 244, 1888) that “the authentic exposition and interpretation of the law, which, binding every citizen, is free for publication to all, whether it is a declaration of unwritten law, or an interpretation of a constitution or a statute”; and

WHEREAS, the United States Copyright Office has unequivocally stated “Edicts of government, such as judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments, public ordinances, and similar official legal documents are not copyrightable for reasons of public policy. This applies to such works whether they are Federal, State, or local as well as to those of foreign governments.”

THEREFORE, it is hereby proclaimed by this notice that any assertion of copyright by the District of Columbia or other parties on the District of Columbia Code is declared to be NULL AND VOID as a matter of law and public 
policy as it is the right of every person to read, know, and speak the laws that bind them.

By the People and For the People on March 25, 2013

Even though ignorance of the law is no excuse, the District of Columbia laws are highly restricted. The official copy costs $803, copyright is claimed by the District with ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, and the only on-line version available to the public is a totally awful site that won't let you go to a section of the code, has no permalinks, and times out after 5 minutes of no activity. In an effort to bring the law to the people, Public.Resource.Org bought the official code, scanned it, and has made it available on the net. A gaudy box including a thumb drive with the scanned copy and a PROCLAMATION OF DIGITIZATION, were sent to the District of Columbia Codification Counsel. The box was festooned with rubber stamps of radical sayings like "DUE PROCESS!" and "EQUAL PROTECTION!" Copies of the box were also sent to prominent members of the mainstream media, including (of course) our friends at Boing Boing.

Developers who work in open government may wish to pay attention to the subdirectory text.for.apps which includes full text for Title 1 and a powerpoint presentation explaining how the code was retrieved. We're hoping innovation will flourish with new ways of looking at the code once the laws are let out of their walled garden and allowed to roam free in our nation's capitol.

Source code for this release is on
You may also view this material on the Internet Archive.
Low-cost print editions of select volumes are available on Lulu.
A nice post on this subject was written by Tom MacWright.
Pictures of the box construction are available on Flickr.


  1. What’s Canada’s extradition policy? You could soon be on the US list of “Most Dangerous Threats To National Security”(if there is one). Boy howdy, you rebel.

  2. Bravo!!!

    The dictum that “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” was based on the fact that ALL the laws were published in the public square.

    Having secret laws makes ignorance of the law no surprise.

    “All Rights Reserved”?  All the rights to the laws belong to the people, and cannot be copyrighted away from them.  How can a publisher copyright public laws?  They didn’t write them, the representatives OF the people, in the course of their employment BY the people, wrote them.  The rights belong to the people.  I suppose you could have an election where the PEOPLE could vote to give the rights away.  But I cannot see any other way of taking the rights from the people.

    1. @boingboing-d8c968d21d93b6e8773e414bf60cfc5f:disqus, read more carefully – copyright is claimed BY THE DISTRICT.  It says right at the bottom of every Westlaw page, “no claim to original U.S. Government works”.  If you have a problem with their copyright, take it up with the District government body that claims copyright.

      Furthermore, regarding “the public square”, it says right on that “To view a printed version of the DC Official Code, visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at 9th and G Streets, NW, or contact them at (202) 727-1111.”  Is that not “the public square”?

      I’m all for improving public access to laws & judicial opinions & bills & so on & so on, in large part because Westlaw makes legal research for highly-paid lawyers so much easier & more efficient than a private non-rich citizen could ever hope for, and that tips the scales of justice in a way I find unacceptable.  But I REALLY don’t like Mr. Malamud’s blatant FUD techniques.  I mean, is he claiming the problem is now solved for DC?  What happens next time the legislature passes a bill?  Is he going to buy & scan the whole tome again to get the updates?  If we can’t trust that it’s valid & current law, it’s not very useful.

      This is too important an issue to be treated this way.  I’m no Westlaw apologist (as I hope should be apparent from the previous paragraph) but let’s do this as honest people.

      1. “What happens next time the legislature passes a bill?  Is he going to buy & scan the whole tome again to get the updates?”

        By your logic, nobody should ever publish any legal code, because it’s just going to change. 
        As somebody who used to work in this business (as you wrote in another comment here), you ought to know that this isn’t actually how legal texts work. Legal codes are published on a recurrent basis in most jurisdictions, as opposed to being updated continuously, every time that a legislature (or, in this case, the DC Council) passes a new law. For instance, here in Virginia, the legislature meets in January and February, with the laws that they pass taking effect on July 1. July 1 is also the date when the new copy of the Code of Virginia is published.

        If this were my project (and it is not) then I would do precisely what Public Resource has done here, just to get caught up, and then use every law passed by the DC Council to update the DC Code. Ideally, DC would be amenable to this, host this digital copy themselves, and maintain it themselves. That is not an option that they had until today, when Public Resource released this, since their contract with West did not provide them with a mechanism to have an electronic copy of their own laws.

        Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

        1. “By your logic, nobody should ever publish any legal code, because it’s just going to change.”

          Not at all, I just don’t see the practical path between this cumbersome set of scans and an ongoing resource of true & valid law.  I mean, these scans are the 2001 book plus the 2012 pocket parts, meant to be tucked in the pockets in the back of the book!  Seriously??

          “Ideally, DC would be amenable to this, host this digital copy themselves, and maintain it themselves.”

          So DC would contract for West to publish the statutes, then take a rogue scan of those statutes with West’s annotations, and host & maintain them?  We now have a government body officially hosting the privately-written legal writings of a legal publisher, who’s apparently just writing them out of the goodness of their heart, because they’re not getting paid anymore by subscribers who can get their annotations for free.  Besides the utter bizarreness of this arrangement, I think that contract wouldn’t be holding water much longer.

  3. In America, business IS the law of the land.  Which, by the way, is the canonical definition of Fascism.

    1.  Not really, and it’s worth getting this right.

      I’d actually recommend going back to the introduction from there and reading the whole thing.  Throwing around the word “fascism” tends to make people’s eyes glaze.  Frankly it’s too important to devalue it like that. 

      Collusion of business with government is an element but there’s a lot more to it.

  4.  As a Washingtonian I commend Mr. Malamud and thank him for his fine work. Bring the sunlight in!

  5. A challenge to anyone who wants to look a little deeper.

    Go take a look at one of the chapters of DC statutes that was scanned, like .  Find the beginning of the actual text of the codes, which in this case is around page 6.  

    Now see if you can distinguish between the actual LAW text, i.e. the stuff people are saying Should Be Free, and the other annotations, explanatory matter, keywords, etc. that were added by the publisher.

    If you’re not sure: all the stuff in small-font (Historical & Statutory Notes, Cross References, Library References, Notes of Decisions, etc.) are original material written by the publisher.  All the stuff in large-font is The Law.

    I do believe that’s an important distinction to make – not just because I’m not sure what justification Mr. Malamud has for scanning & publishing West’s original material, but also because as a citizen, you should be aware that the publisher’s explanatory text doesn’t have the force of law.

    1. His justification is (presumably) that it’s wildly, grossly impractical to edit the entire text of the D.C. Code to remove every single bit of text that is written by West.

      1. I doubt it.  It would have been infinitely easier to spider the web site (which has none of the annotations) than to buy the book & scan it.  I’m assuming he got the print version *because* of the annotations.

          1. I can’t find an AUP anywhere there, is there one you could point me to?

            I do see a completely uninforceable statement that “Use of all or part of the data displayed on this site for commercial or other unauthorized purposes is prohibited.”  Seriously, you can’t use the law for commercial purposes?  I presume that’s not what you’re talking about though.

            In any case, it’s copyright law, not an AUP, that would protect the West-written annotations.

  6. Full disclosure, because I seem to be getting a few things off my chest here – I used to work for Thomson Reuters, in the R&D group that developed the algorithms behind Westlaw Next, so I got to know this data pretty well.  I don’t work there anymore (nor for a competitor or anything – now I work in the wind energy industry).

  7. Regarding “a totally awful site that won’t let you go to a section of the code, has no permalinks, and times out after 5 minutes of no activity.”

    I seem to have no trouble “going to a section of the code”, by simply navigating the tree.  Could this point be explained?  I also have not been timed out after inactivity periods much longer than 5 minutes.

    I do think he’s right that there are no permalinks, because the URLs are pretty long & complex.  But to say “the District of Columbia laws are highly restricted” because of that is a real stretch.

    1. I see a lot of people claim that it is easy to “navigate the tree” in IT documentation. That is true only if you know where in the tree to navigate to, and many is the time that looking for info in the documentation takes longer than implementing the method, properties, whatever in the code you are writing. I myself have gone down the wrong branch in a tree navigation, searched the nodes on the end only to realise that the information I needed is on a different branch entirely.

      So what is my point? I guess my point is that if you are familiar with the material, then the choices made as to what to put where on the tree may make sense to you, but not an outsider. A single tree is not a good navigation tool, and often a failing of us geeks to think that because we grok it, it must be enough.

      1. I certainly agree with that.  There’s also a search box, FWIW.

        My point was that Carl claims one can’t “go to a section of the code”, but I don’t see the difficulty.

        1. Hyperlinks are pretty much the key to the WWW’s success.  Anyone designing a site to deliberately break linkability had better have a damn good reason.

          Imagine you’re trying to have a discussion of the legality of some action.  Compare the following ways of quickly establishing a common piece of legal text to look at:

          “Here’s the rule on tenants installing smoke detectors.  Looks like you’re right to take it out of your rent.”

          “Here’s how to reach the rule on tenants installing smoke detectors: First follow this link to the full municipal code, then click on Title 6, then click the + next to Chapter 7, then the + next to Subchapter IV, then click Paragraph 6-751.10.  Looks like you’re right to take it out of your rent.”

          Sure, the second one technically works – but I’m I don’t see anything like a damn good (or even ‘remotely sensible’) reason for breaking the first one.

          If you don’t see a problem with the second approach, try these articles by Jakob Nielsen (and generally anything he writes)

          Also, go to, then click ‘articles’ in the top bar, then on the left side of the page, under ‘topics’, click ‘technology’, then near the bottom of the page, click ‘see all technology articles’, then scroll about halfway down the page and click ‘URL as UI’.

          Wasn’t the first article reference much easier to find?  Do you think you’d actually look at the second one?

          OK, I’ll be nice – here’s a direct link to the second one: – but really, I shouldn’t have to do that – you should have had no difficulty going to the artice by simply following the instructions above.

  8. Along the same lines, it always bugs me that you (invariably?  at least in all the US cities that I’ve lived in) also have to pay for local building codes, yet are expected to abide by them.  It staggers me that this information is not freely available.

  9. I don’t like the flavour of the free ice cream here (!) The actual text of the law cannot be copyrighted, but about half the text in the scanned book is in fact original explanatory notes provided by the editor that serve to put the law in context. Those notes are surely protected by copyright law because they’re the original work of the editor (rather than statute). It’s incumbent on the owner of the website to redact all the copyrighted material and only publish the verbatim text of the law.

    It’s the same as publishing a copy of Shakespeare (which is out of copyright and thus legal) or ripping off a study text that contains the play and also footnotes, interpretation, references to other modern literature, etc.We’ve got a snapshot of the law as it stood on 25th March 2013, or thereabouts. People can’t rely on this cached copy of the law indefinitely.

    1. It is also incumbent on governments at all levels to make the text of the law freely and readily available.  Simple solution.

  10. For whatever reason, I feel like putting a link to the laws where I live: which seem to be much much better than the Washington ones.  Yay us.

  11. Blearghhh, I feel the same urge:

    The session laws only go back to 1997, but all of the general laws are there. Amusingly, the Massachusetts Legislature (officially the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) also has a copyright notice on each page:

    Copyright © 2013 The General Court, All Rights Reserved

    But clearly that holds no force of law, given the Us Supreme Court and Copyright Office rulings listed in the OP. I simply do not understand why government entities even want to copyright things. What part of public domain don’t they understand?

  12. We all have been able to view the entire, up-to-date DC Code online for free for here:  At the bottom, click on “View the DC Code” and it takes you to Westlaw’s site for the DC Code. This has been free and available to everyone for at least as long as I have lived in DC (7 years). Sorry to cut everyone’s outrage short, but accuracy is important.

    1. Accuracy is important, but so is comprehension. The point is not that there is a version online from Westlaw, but that Eastlaw is prohibited from making a copy and re-speaking the law in a more coherent fashion. You can’t have equal protection under the law if you need a license before you can access the law.

        1. Ken you’ve done 11 of the 36 comments on this thread. Seems like you’re a subconscious supporter of freedom of speech even if you’re not yet self-actualized.

          1. Ken,  I suspect what Carl (and the rest of us) are wondering is why, if you worked on this project for Thompson, you can’t see the problem?  Do you really think the way this arrangement works between the District of Columbia and Thompson is the best way to keep the citizens of the district informed of their laws?

          2. @twitter-6135662:disqus – Certainly I see problems with the arrangement, yes.

            What I’m trying to say, perhaps not very clearly, is that if Carl finds the official website lacking in usability, to me it seems perfectly reasonable to spider it & host it in a more accessible fashion.  Personally I think that would be a *good* thing, but I’m guessing Carl didn’t find it very important, because he only did that for Title 1 out of 23 Titles.

            What I *don’t* see the justification for is scanning the heavily-annotated books and publishing those scans.  That was done for all Titles, so I’m led to believe grabbing the annotations was the primary goal.

            Perhaps one could argue, though I haven’t seen anyone say it yet, that those annotations are so important that one can’t really understand the law without them.  If you feel that’s the case, say so, let’s have the discussion.  But don’t just yell “THE LAW IS SECRET!” over and over.

            And I particularly don’t like the assertions from Carl that I believe to be patently false, which are stated without reference, and which I’m trying to ask questions about without finding any real answers.

            Is this not the place to engage in a discussion about it?  This page is Carl’s official press release page, right? If a different venue would be better, let’s move there. It’s a discussion worth having.

          3. The copyright on the statutes and the annotations are asserted by the District of Columbia. There is no copyright by Thomson Westlaw. Look in the front of the books and also look at the registrations at the Copyright Office. The “publisher” (Westlaw) does not own this, this is a question between the District of Columbia and the people.

            Why not simply crawl the existing site? The Westlaw site is covered by a terms of use prohibition. “Use of all or part of the data displayed on this site for commercial or other unauthorized purposes is prohibited.”

            Ken, the reason I didn’t answer your question earlier is that you are trolling. You have posted more than 1/3 of the comments on this thread and you have been highly argumentative, very personal, and in many cases simply wrong. Get a blog and write up your thoughts instead of trolling other people. It would be more productive.  It’s a big Internet, go create some content. There’s plenty of room for you.

  13. I am not always a fan of “civil disobedience” but in this case:  “You go!”

    I would support a reasonable cost for publication of bound volumes like this to offset the actual cost to produce as long as they can also easily be had in some usable form for free and not just down at the town hall Monday through Friday from 10 to 11:15..  PDF or other searchable form at the minimum, easily downloadable.

    And this should include all those privately produced but publicly enforced “standards included by reference herein” sort of thing.

    $800 isn’t reasonable, no how no way.

    1. The newly-scanned copy of the codes is listed for $12.36 on Lulu, which seems WAY WAY better, right?  A 448-page book for less than fifteen bucks!  The thing is, that’s 1 PDF out of 55 PDFs you’d need for the whole set.  $12.36 * 55 = $679.80 .  Suddenly that doesn’t seem so great a deal either.

      If you compute by file size instead of number of files, it comes to $12.36 * 1411/15.77 = $1105.89 .  If you go by number of pages, it’s $12.36 * 32,063/448 = $884.60 .

      So I agree with part of what you’re saying – I think this further emphasizes the point, if it wasn’t already painfully obvious, that buying dead-tree books is completely unreasonable as a way for a citizen to stay abreast of the law.  It’s a non-starter for anyone, unless you just want them to look good behind your big leather desk chair.  Even lawyers don’t buy them anymore.

      I agree with the initiative to post the text of the law for wider consumption.  But the books don’t have much to do with the equation IMO.

  14. DC citizens have reasonable access to the DC Code through DC Public Libraries. The DC Code is available at the MLK Library (DC’s central library) and all 25 neighborhood branches – the full 23 vol. set as well as all supplemental updates and a subject index. Also at the library, a friendly public librarian (like yours truly) to help the perplexed use the index or navigate the westlaw website. We’re open evenings, weekends, and free to all.  That said, I’m all for creating another noncommercial access point to the Code – the more the better (as long as it’s kept up to date)!

Comments are closed.