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Can the Law be Copyrighted?

Carl Malamud liberates 33,000 pages of California regulations for public use.

Carl Malamud, the crusader famous for challenging restrictions on access to government information, is at it again. This time, he is taking on the State of California over its claims that its huge body of state law is copyrighted. Malamud argues that laws, regulations and safety standards should be in the public domain.

Although the State of California publishes its laws on the Internet, its copyright claims mean that people generally have to pay to download or print state laws and regulations. A digital copy of the 38-volume California Code of Regulations costs $1,556 and a print version costs $2,315. The State figures that it earns about $880,000 each year from selling publication rights to its laws.

Despite the State’s legal claims, Malamud recently decided to digitally scan the 33,000 pages of the California Code and put them online for free, on his website www.public.resource.org. He told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, “When it comes to the law, the courts have always said there can be no copyright because people are obligated to know what it says. Ignorance of the law is no excuse in court.” Yet the State of California claims that Malamud needs its permission to put state laws and regulations online.

Malamud’s goal is to provoke a lawsuit that will eventually set a precedent requiring all government agencies to provide open access to their rules and regulations. If government put its documents on the Web in free, standardized formats, he argues, then companies could make money offering specialized Web formatting, digital searches and printing of the materials. Malamud also envisions the use of Web 2.0 functions such as wikis or Facebook-like functions, so that plumbers could annotate building codes, for example. But such innovations are not likely to emerge if government information is monopolized by the State or exclusive vendors.