Outsourcing Online Code Display Hinders Innovation

Although most states provide a copy of their laws online, some outsource this to LexisNexis. Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Washington D.C. all do so. While this might seem like a decent solution at first blush, it’s actually incredibly problematic, and serves as a major obstacle to innovation within those states.

It is self-evident that state laws ought to be disseminated as widely as possible and be as accessible as possible. To follow the law, people must first be able to know what it says. Projects like the State Decoded (or Legix.info’s California Codes, or OregonLaws.org, or Justia’s US Law directory) rely on access to the text of the law. These services take the raw material of the laws and make substantial improvements to them, making this important information more accessible and understandable than they are on their state-sanctioned websites.

When states punt to LexisNexis, they make their state codes a dead end.

Washington D.C. used to provide their code on dccouncil.washington.dc.us. No longer. Now it’s found only on LexisNexis’s website. Any D.C. resident who wants to read the code—their own laws—must first agree to LexisNexis’s terms of use, which allow visitors merely “the right to download using the commands of the Online Services and store in machine-readable form, primarily for that Authorized User’s exclusive use, a single copy of insubstantial portions of those Authorized Legal Materials.” LexisNexis goes on to explain that, “for the avoidance of doubt, downloading and storing Materials in an archival database is prohibited.” LexisNexis’s terms of use make it impossible to do anything of interest with D.C.’s code. No value can be added to it. The strangely specific prohibition on storing data in a database (e.g., Zotero) ensures that.

The problem is not LexisNexis per se, but rather their strikingly restrictive licensing terms of materials that, were it not for those terms, could be reproduced freely.

Unless Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Washington D.C. provide bulk downloads—which is rare—or can be persuaded to provide an electronic copy of their laws, LexisNexis’s licensing terms are an immovable object that prevents the advance of any private-sector effort to enhance the display of those laws.