Washington D.C. and the Work Ahead

On Greater Greater Washington, Tom MacWright recently wrote a blog entry highlighting the problems of access to the Washington D.C. Code. There is, first, a legal obstacle: Washington D.C. claims copyright over their laws, which is to say that it is illegal to reproduce them without permission of the city. Then, second, what is perhaps a more significant obstacle: they outsource the maintenance of their legal code.

The city of Washington D.C. long ago started paying WestLaw—and now LexisNexis—to turn the D.C. Council’s bills into laws. As a result, they now have neither the knowledge nor the infrastructure to maintain their own laws. The only way that D.C. can find out what their laws say is to pay LexisNexis to tell them. This is consequently true for the public, as well. If a resident of D.C.—like MacWright—wants to know what the law says, there’s no sense in asking (or FOIAing) the city, because the city has outsourced the process so completely that they know nothing.

MacWright has a few options to know what the law says. The first is to travel to a library on each occasion that he wants to know something (assuming he can find one that has a current copy of the DC Code), and read it there. The second is that he can buy a copy, for $867.00. And the third is that he can use the DC Code website, maintained by WestLaw, which is every bit as awful as any other state code website.

So how is the D.C. Code to get the State Decoded treatment? How can a digital copy be imported into the software, for the general public benefit? It can’t be FOIAed from D.C. Council, since they don’t have it. It’s clearly impractical to scan in 25 volumes of hardbound books. Normally that would leave scraping the website, but WestLaw’s website has a EULA that prohibits copying material off of the website. WestLaw has been hired to do for the Washington D.C. government what they cannot or will not do for themselves—post laws to the web—and because they choose to impose copyright restrictions, that is a legal barrier preventing that material from being reused.

Normally, this would be the end of the road—Washington D.C. would have cut off their code from being improved (or even reused) in any way by third parties. In this case, though, the story has a different ending. Public.Resource.Org has taken the surprising and admirable tack of purchasing all of the volumes of the D.C. Code, slicing them up, scanning them in, OCRing them, and distributing them for free.

DC Code Assembly Line

Deglued bundles on the bottom right awaiting their turn on the two high-speed scanners. When they are completed, the bundles are put upper right to await a QA pass.

All of the volumes can be downloaded as PDFs or, via the Internet Archive, in nearly any other file format one can think of. For those who would like a print copy for a more reasonable price, print-on-demand service Lulu sells each volume for just $12.

Lest the motivations of Public.Resource.Org be unclear, a “Proclamation of Digitization” accompanies the release, citing a pair of Supreme Court rulings (“the authentic exposition and interpretation of the law, which, binding every citizen, is free for publication to all, whether it is a declaration of unwritten law, or an interpretation of a constitution or a statute”) and declaring that “any assertion of copyright by the District of Columbia or other parties on the District of Columbia Code is declared to be NULL AND VOID as a matter of law and public policy as it is the right of every person to read, know, and speak the laws that bind them.” The organization mailed out elaborate packages, containing portions of the D.C. Code, to announce its availability. (You can see my own unboxing photos.)

All that remains is for somebody to marry this source of data with The State Decoded as, indeed, somebody is already talking about doing. The D.C. Council or WestLaw may not be happy about this—it’s quite possible that one or both entities will take legal action to halt this—but I’m confident that it will be found that the law supports making those very laws public.