Greater Greater Washington

Government


DC's laws aren't yours

There's a deep, persistent, and crippling problem with the laws of DC: you can't download a copy.


Photo by PublicResource.org on Flickr.

Due to a weak contract and a variety of legal techniques, it's not possible to create better ways to read the law or download it for offline access, or even to try to do better than the crummy online portal that serves as its official source.

It also means that it's hard to discuss legal matters online, since you can't link to specific lawsthis Salon.com article about David Gregory has had a broken link to the law in question since 40 minutes after it was posted, months ago.

How the law became scarce

How did this happen? It's a tricky answer of access, ownership, and contracts.

The DC Council writes and publishes bills, which are additions and subtractions to the law itself. The law is compiled by a contractorpreviously WestLaw, now LexisNexis. So the contractor holds a complete copy of the law.

The contractor publishes a few different versions of the "compiled law," each of which with restrictions:

Unfortunately, courts have upheld these types of restrictions in the CD and website Terms of Service. They get further support from the wire fraud statute, which prosecutors used in the Aaron Swartz case to escalate charges to felonies. And in all of these versions, the contractor tries to claim copyright through compilation copyright and additional content like citations and prefaces.

In the face of these strong guards against freeing the law, the most reasonable avenue for creating a freely-accessible copy is buying and scanning the printed copies, which is exactly what some citizens are starting to do.

Why this matters

This has effects in many places. Advocacy organizations pushing for changes can't reference laws by linking to them, so they have to copy & paste relevant sections and hope that people trust their versions. Of course, when laws go out of date, these copy and pasted guides stop working.

The goal of better educating the police about laws (like the rules of the road for bicyclists) is harder. Police can't have an offline copy of the law for quick access in the field, and the online version is near-useless on smartphones.

It's also locking the DC Council into using a contractor for this purpose. DC's contracts with WestLaw and LexisNexis aren't strong enough to force the contractors to provide them with a copyright-cleaned version, so the council itself doesn't have a compiled copy of the law that they can publish by themselves if they want to take this in-house.

What's Next

This is a hard problem to unwrap and fix, and there are multiple efforts afoot.

Waldo Jaquith is building The State Decoded, an open-source system for storing and displaying state codes. It's already deployed with Virginia's laws. Public Resource.org is working on the long task of scanning and digitizing the print edition. And a group of residents are encouraging the council to write a better contract than the current one with LexisNexis, which doesn't provide for copyright-free copies.

Meanwhile, it'll be months or years until it's possible to download DC's laws onto your iPhone and clarify whether it is, indeed, legal to bike on a sidewalk (sometimes) or drink in public space (never).

Tom MacWright is a software developer who writes code that makes maps at MapBox. He moved to Washington, DC in 2009 and was drawn into local issues via bikes. In his free time, he learns and teaches, recently focusing on math and law. 

Comments

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I'm pretty sure all those sidewalk cafe patrons in DC drinking alcohol in public space are doing so legally.

by 20002ist on Mar 19, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

It's amazing that this is an issue at all. I had always assumed I could Google the law. Thanks for bringing attention to this and working for a solution.

by MV Jantzen on Mar 19, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

The idea that the Council (or anyone else) can copyright DC laws is pure nonsense. Oregon tried to make this claim in 2008 and quickly backed down after being confronted to numerous SCOTUS and lower court rulings establishing that laws are not copyrightable. (source: https://blogs.law.harvard.edu/infolaw/2008/04/16/can-states-copyright-their-statutes/)

by Jacob on Mar 19, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

@20002ist I think that's why they have those gates around sidewalk cafes--that makes it private space.

Yeah, this is a major pain...this is a separate issue, but their municipal register site is even worse.

by Ian on Mar 19, 2013 3:29 pm • linkreport

@Jacob: yes, it's nonsense. And yes it has been done: http://1.usa.gov/WZPt43

by Tom MacWright on Mar 19, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

Advocacy organizations pushing for changes can't reference laws by linking to them, so they have to copy & paste relevant sections and hope that people trust their versions

Cry me a river... Just cite the section of the code like every lawyer's done for the entire history of ever. It's available online and takes two seconds to look up - which is a lot easier to find than any other time in the entire history of the republic (when you had to either buy a copy of the code or ... gasp... go to a library and/or courthouse). If a person actually cares about a particular issue, they will look up the law - if they can't be bothered to do anything beyond clicking a link why should anyone care what they think.

by MoCo on Mar 19, 2013 4:04 pm • linkreport

Thanks for taking a leadership role in making this happen, Tom. It's increasingly clear that this is a problem that no one person can solve, but I think a handful of us can tackle this collaboratively.

by Waldo Jaquith on Mar 19, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

@MoCo

Sure, the system works fine if you're looking to cite a specific section or know the cite for what you are looking for.

If you're just starting from "hmm, what is the law on X" then good f-ing luck. That WestLaw site is a ridiculous pain in the ass designed without users in mind. Not to mention the fact that you can't just download a file with the text of the PUBLIC LAWS anywhere. That's ridiculous.

It's certainly better than when you had to go to the library to look things up, but considering what the internet has to offer our standards of what is "good enough" need to change.

by MLD on Mar 19, 2013 4:20 pm • linkreport

@ MLD - There's a search function on the West site that will run across the entire DC code if you want to find out "what is the law on X" (which btw is a great way for internet lawyers to get themselves and/or others into trouble).

I love how tech types whine and moan when something isn’t in the most convenient or easily accessible format for them. It kind of reminds me of people who complain that people have taken “their” spot in front of their house.

by MoCo on Mar 19, 2013 4:40 pm • linkreport

@ MoCo

Actually, it doesn't really work for most people. It only really works for people who have lots of time to spend on figuring out how the city works. If this were a necessary evil, that would be one thing, but really there's no good reason for it. If public participation and democracy are things we care about, it's an issue. Whether its worth spending resources fixing is a fair question, but don't just assume because you're comfortable with the system that it's sufficiently accessible.

by Ian on Mar 19, 2013 4:54 pm • linkreport

@MoCo

You know what would be more convenient and not any more work? A text file dump with the entire code in it.

Again, there are a whole host of reasons presented in the article, none of which require some whiz-bang super techy solution. The complaint isn't that the government should build apps or whatever, it's that the public domain information is kept behind lock and key so that nobody else can use it in any way other than looking at it on the westlaw site.

The fact that you can't link to a section of the code ought to be evidence enough that the current system is pathetic.

by MLD on Mar 19, 2013 5:12 pm • linkreport

@Tom MacWright, the form was filed so it's listed on that website but if the council actually tries to enforce their "copyright" they will be laughed out of court.

by Jacob on Mar 19, 2013 7:00 pm • linkreport

I love how tech types whine and moan when something isn’t in the most convenient or easily accessible format for them.

I'm curious: if something isn't convenient or easily accessible to "tech types" how on Earth is it convenient and easily accessible to non-techies?

by oboe on Mar 19, 2013 7:05 pm • linkreport

@ Jacob:The idea that the Council (or anyone else) can copyright DC laws is pure nonsense.

I am not sure that this is the legal argument. The legal argument is probably that since the contractor is compiling the law, they own the copyright on the compilation. That is, you can cite laws all you want - as long as you can find them.

The root problem here is a common one: the government outsourcing a job they should be doing themselves. It is a core government task to compile the law, keep a complete copy of it, and make it public - and that includes online these days. The DC council, and all other governments that do a similar thing, should immediately cancel this contractor, and publish the entire law online on a freely accessible website.

by Jasper on Mar 19, 2013 8:37 pm • linkreport

So can anyone help me with a really decent site for Federal Regs?

by DavidDuck on Mar 19, 2013 10:29 pm • linkreport

Tom,

Amen and thanks for highlighting this problem. I find the current format exasperating-a real impediment to understanding and clarity. It becomes especially frustrating when trying to compare a proposed amendment to the underlying body of law. It's almost impossible without a great deal of effort, time and tedious, manual cross-comparison.

Inscrutable laws make it easier for law makers to abuse their law making powers--they are simply less accountable. It makes it easier for the Executive branch and its agencies to ignore parts of the law that are difficult to implement or that they don't like. And it makes the body of law just plain 'ole messy, which is a problem for those of us who like efficiency.

Technology allows us to do much better. There is no good reason that we shouldn't.

by Brian Pate on Mar 19, 2013 11:56 pm • linkreport

"the contractor holds the complete copy of the law."

That's b.s. If you did a FOIA, D.C. would have to provide you the code. The only question would be the format.

by freewheel on Mar 20, 2013 7:58 am • linkreport

DavidDuck: For the federal register, go here.

by freewheel on Mar 20, 2013 8:13 am • linkreport

freewheel: There is a charge per page for FOIA results over a certain size. Thus, they would have to provide you with a copy, but might charge a lot. And if it's in print or a scanned PDF, it's not that useful. As the article says, you can buy the books, too — the harder part is getting a complete copy in a computer-readable format that you can then search, reuse in various ways, etc.

by David Alpert on Mar 20, 2013 8:28 am • linkreport

@MoCo: try to search for the laws and regulations on the publicly-owned but privately maintained green space in front of your house. This is a concern for every single homeowner in DC. But without the keyword "public parking", the rather obscure term used for this space.

by goldfish on Mar 20, 2013 8:31 am • linkreport

Nice to see people try to "hack" the law. These tech types may not have heard there are these fusty people called "lawyers" which have been doing this for several hundred years. In some countries they even dress up, but in DC they mostly wear suits and try to blend in. Hell, I've even heard every third person in DC is a lawyer, but that is one of those rumors that won't go away.

They use these things called books. IN fact, there are these places called libraries where the books are free. Radical!

And that used to be a job for said libraries, but then some stupid lawyer said homeless people were allowed in, and nobody goes there anymore. Sad. But in the old days, you'd go to a library and pick up a law book.

by charlie on Mar 20, 2013 8:39 am • linkreport

@charlie,

Do you actually have an explicable problem with making this stuff readily available in some sort of portable, transformable electronic format? Or is it all just vague resentment about "changing times"?

by oboe on Mar 20, 2013 9:10 am • linkreport

David Alpert: You can request a waiver of fees by including a statement in your FOIA request explaining how the requested records will be used to benefit the general public. The project described by this post certainly seems to meet that criteria.

With respect to format, I would go ahead and request it in electronic, searchable form. We know they have it, given that they're working with Lexis. Let them explain why they can't provide it.

by freewheel on Mar 20, 2013 9:16 am • linkreport

@oboe; I went to the link, not the best interface but it would work. You want expensive -- try printing out a federal court decision.

There is a powerful argument for making laws available. And they are -- on paper. You want more pay for it. Kind of like parking....

by charlie on Mar 20, 2013 9:30 am • linkreport

not the best interface but it would work

Obviously someone writing about how to make it easier is just whining then.

There is a powerful argument for making laws available. And they are -- on paper. You want more pay for it.

What is the cost of putting the stuff online in a searchable format? Please don't tell me we have to compare all the costs of paper vs. a computer. Just put the stuff online.

by drumz on Mar 20, 2013 9:43 am • linkreport

I don't understand how an electronic copy downloaded by you or anyone else is going to be more useful or user friendly than the code provided by any vendor for free public access. The public access site allows you to search using natural language (which is pretty idiot proof) and you can pull up specific citations, or you can pull up an entire title or chapter of the code, or read through the code section by section. That's basically what attorneys pay for using regular online legal research providers.

And if you were provided an electronic copy you'd be faced with updating it throughout the legislative session, which I'm guessing you wouldn't take the time to do but would instead again rely on the vendor to again provide.. and I'm sure the vendor has elves that are doing all this work for free, so that seems fair.

by Alex on Mar 20, 2013 12:13 pm • linkreport

I'm sure the vendor has elves that are doing all this work for free

Uhh, the city contracts with them so the city is paying them to prepare and update the code. And then I just have to download a new copy.

There is a powerful argument for making laws available. And they are -- on paper. You want more pay for it. Kind of like parking....

Tossing an electronic file online on DC's already available server and website space is a lot cheaper than printing a book and shipping it somewhere.

by MLD on Mar 20, 2013 12:52 pm • linkreport

You're making an assumption that the city is paying for this work, but I don't know that that is the case and I'm fairly certain that you don't either. It could very well be that the vendor is providing all the work on the code and in exchange gets to sell the code in print and online, while the city is provided with free online access.

Your request adds a redundancy to the equation, and an expense to the city in providing electronic copies, when it is already is available. But hey I'm paying for it, so maybe I'm the sucker. Let's all make open record requests for stuff that is already available online.. I'm sure city employees have nothing else better to do.

by Alex on Mar 20, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

You say,

You're making an assumption that the city is paying for this work, but I don't know that that is the case and I'm fairly certain that you don't either. It could very well be that the vendor is providing all the work on the code and in exchange gets to sell the code in print and online, while the city is provided with free online access.

Which seems to me to imply what the article says,

Due to a weak contract and a variety of legal techniques, it's not possible to create better ways to read the law or download it for offline access, or even to try to do better than the crummy online portal that serves as its official source.

All you have to do is replace "city" in your statement with "anyone with internet access" and I think the whole issue would go away.

by drumz on Mar 20, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

I just can't imagine what the argument for the current arrangement is - seems like most people just want to ridicule the idea of getting this information in any other way than it is currently offered.

So what's the argument? We should be unable to get a complete electronic copy of the DC code for free because.... go to the library?

by MLD on Mar 20, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

I believe someone asked for a good place to read the US Code and CFR. The Cornell Law School believes in the sort of transparency that DC and other states apparently lack. So Cornell publishes Federal laws and regulations for free. Check it out at www.law.cornell.edu/

by TC on Mar 20, 2013 10:17 pm • linkreport

I don't understand how an electronic copy downloaded by you or anyone else is going to be more useful or user friendly than the code provided by any vendor for free public access.

Then you're not very imaginative. :) Compare Virginia § 2.2-3704 on the official site (courtesy of LexisNexis) and the same law on my privately run site.

The free public access version provided by the state's vendor has no title, menu, links, design or, indeed, anything.

The open-source-developed version on my site is nicely formatted, easy to read, has all definitions of legal terms embedded, can be linked to on a per-subsection-basis, displays crossreferences, related laws, relevant court decisions, legislation that proposed to amend it, and allows comments.

Governments aren't going to provide these kind of features, features that make the law much, much easier for regular people to understand, especially not in the present economy. By giving away the raw legal data (our data—we've paid for it!), they enable private enterprise to innovate with that data. It worked for weather data. It worked for GPS data. It will work for legal data.

by Waldo Jaquith on Mar 21, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

We as a society are well on the way to moving beyond the Gutenberg era (roughly 1492-1992) and into the digital era.

Eventually, the legal profession will move too. But left to its own devices, it might well take another 500 years. Witness some of the above comments.

by citizenw on Mar 29, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

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