State's Claim That Laws Are Copyrighted May Force Court Battle

by , May 20, 2008, 7:45 AM
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headshot of Carl MalamudA dispute about whether the state of Oregon can claim copyright protection in its statutes is edging closer to a courtroom showdown.

PublicResource.org and Justia, which post laws and other public documents online, have drafted a complaint asking a federal court in California to declare that Oregon's laws are not copyrighted.

"Plaintiffs--whose mission it is to make the law widely available to people who are expected to comply with it--take issue with the state's broad assertion of rights over such information," a draft version of the complaint states.

The draft motion was dated Friday, but Public.Resource founder Carl Malamud said it hasn't been filed yet. "We're continuing to have a dialogue with the legislative counsel and are, of course, hopeful that we can work this out without going to court," Malamud said.

Public.Resource.Org and Justia's lawyer, Karl Olson of San Francisco, said the groups had not yet finalized a deadline by which they will file the complaint.

The dispute between the sites and the Oregon officials started when Dexter Johnson, head of the state's legislative counsel committee, asserted that parts of the Oregon revised statutes were copyrighted. Johnson last month sent a cease-and-desist letter to Justia CEO Tim Stanley and also complained to Public.Resource. Johnson said he isn't asserting a copyright in the laws themselves, but in the original material, such as the prefaces, that Oregon's legislative counsel committee wrote to accompany the laws.

In April, Johnson said he anticipated the matter could be resolved with a licensing agreement. But Malamud said that the license proposed by Johnson's office was unacceptable because it includes language stating that portions of the laws are copyrighted.

Such a document would not necessarily create any legal precedent, but there are still valid reasons why Public.Resource and Justia would resist signing it, said Sam Bayard, assistant director of Harvard's Citizen Media Law Center. "They certainly wouldn't be conceding it in any official way that mattered to third parties," Bayard said. "But it might give some credence to Oregon's assertion. If they do decide to take the license, then in some ways they're admitting they need the license."

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