Public.Resource.Org archivist Carl Malamud has a guest post on BoingBoing talking about a use case for e-books if ever there was one. However, for this project he is actually starting out with paper—thirty pounds of it.

Malamud writes about the peculiar phenomenon of secret, payment-required laws that are on the books all over the United States. The laws begin as privately-produced technical public safety standards. They are then incorporated into federal law because it’s more convenient to do so than to come up with something that comprehensive all over again.

However, the companies that produce the standards continue to charge exorbitant sums for copies of those laws, and threaten litigation if anyone dares to violate their copyrights—as Peter Veeck found when he posted the Building Code of Savoy, Texas on the web. However, a Court of Appeals decision found that the law in any form “is in the public domain and thus not amenable to copyright.”

Subsequently, Public.Resource.Org has decided to paint a target on itself by paying over $7,000 for 73 of those laws, and proceeding to violate their copyright openly and publicly. But the group is starting small, with a batch of thirty print editions of the law. Malamud explains:

We know from all the copyright warnings, terms of use, scary shrink wrap agreements, and other red-hot rhetoric that accompanies these documents that the producers continue to believe that copies may not be made under any circumstances. Those of you familiar with copyright math know that statutory damages for unlawful replication of a document is $150,000 per infraction. So, even though we strongly believe that the documents are not entitled to copyright protection, and moreover that our limited print run is in any case definitely fair use, if a judge were to decide that what we did was breaking the law, 25 copies of 73 standards works out to $273,750,000 in potential liability. While whales may make bigger bets, we draw the line at $273 million.

It sent some of those copies to the standards bodies from which it purchased the documents, others to government offices, and is going to keep some in reserve for public exhibition and evidence in any court proceedings that come about as a result. The organization is soliciting public comment until May 1, at which point it plans to begin posting the documents to the web.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of ancient Rome. You may have heard the expression, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Some say this idea actually dates back to the time when the Roman law code was simple enough that a poster containing it in its entirety could be posted in every marketplace or other public area, so every citizen would have ample opportunity to familiarize himself with it. Thus, citizens really had no excuse not to know what the law was.

Now we have companies that insist they have the right not to show you the law unless you fork over a pretty penny. What kind of sense does that make?

Kudos to Malamud and Public.Resource.Org for standing up for Americans’ right not to be ignorant of the laws that govern them.


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