Oregon Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson sent a cease and deist letter to the free legal reference site Justia.com, asking it to stop publishing the Oregon Revised Statutes unless it obtains a license from the state's legislative counsel committee. Johnson also complained to public.resource.org, which also publishes state laws online.
Generally, people can't copyright purely factual material, like phone book listings. But Johnson said in a letter to Justia CEO Tim Stanley that Oregon isn't complaining about publication of the laws, but of original material--like prefaces--that Oregon's legislative counsel committee wrote to accompany the laws.
"Although the committee does not claim a copyright in the subject-matter compilation of Oregon statutory law, the prefatory and explanatory notes, the headlines and numbering for each statutory section, the tables, index and annotations ... are the work product of the committee,"Johnson wrote to Stanley last week. Johnson also said he has no objection to Justia or other sites linking to the official state Web site, which posts the laws.
Thursday afternoon, the parties held talks about settling the dispute. Stanley said he was hopeful that his site and Oregon officials would reach a resolution soon. "They didn't seem totally unreasonable," Stanley said, adding that he's optimistic that Oregon will allow his site to continue publishing the material, while the state retains the copyrights to it.
But should the case end up in litigation, some open government advocates believe Oregon would have a hard time proving that organizing and packaging state statutes confers copyright protection. "It's an attempt to put a private wrapper around a public package," said Carl Malamud, who helms public.resource.org. He said that Oregon sells physical copies of the Oregon Revised Statutes to lawyers in the state.
Sam Bayard, assistant director of Harvard's Citizen Media Law Center, added that simply placing statutes in a particular order might not warrant a copyright. "If it's completely rote or obvious, then it won't be original enough for copyright protection," he said. Bayard added that as a public policy matter, it seems that there's a strong argument in favor of publishing laws, so people can know what they are.
As with other media companies facing disruption by digital technology, law book publishers might have to face the fact that the Web has changed demand for their product. "More people are accessing legal material online, and not through these books," Bayard said. "And there's nothing the state can do to stop that."