Photo by Public

Resource.org on Flickr.

There’s a deep, persistent, and crippling problem with the laws of DC: you can’t download a copy.

Due to a weak contract and a variety of legal techniques, it’s not possible to create better ways to read the law or download it for offline access, or even to try to do better than the crummy online portal that serves as its official source.

It also means that it’s hard to discuss legal matters online, since you can’t link to specific laws — this Salon.com article about David Gregory has had a broken link to the law in question since 40 minutes after it was posted, months ago.



How the law became scarce

How did this happen? It’s a tricky answer of access, ownership, and contracts.

The DC Council writes and publishes bills, which are additions and subtractions to the law itself. The law is compiled by a contractor — previously WestLaw, now LexisNexis. So the contractor holds a complete copy of the law.

The contractor publishes a few different versions of the “compiled law,” each of which with restrictions:

Unfortunately, courts have upheld these types of restrictions in the CD and website Terms of Service. They get further support from the wire fraud statute, which prosecutors used in the Aaron Swartz case to escalate charges to felonies. And in all of these versions, the contractor tries to claim copyright through compilation copyright and additional content like citations and prefaces.

In the face of these strong guards against freeing the law, the most reasonable avenue for creating a freely-accessible copy is buying and scanning the printed copies, which is exactly what some citizens are starting to do.


Why this matters

This has effects in many places. Advocacy organizations pushing for changes can’t reference laws by linking to them, so they have to copy & paste relevant sections and hope that people trust their versions. Of course, when laws go out of date, these copy and pasted guides stop working.

The goal of better educating the police about laws (like the rules of the road for bicyclists) is harder. Police can’t have an offline copy of the law for quick access in the field, and the online version is near-useless on smartphones.

It’s also locking the DC Council into using a contractor for this purpose. DC’s contracts with WestLaw and LexisNexis aren’t strong enough to force the contractors to provide them with a copyright-cleaned version, so the council itself doesn’t have a compiled copy of the law that they can publish by themselves if they want to take this in-house.


What’s Next

This is a hard problem to unwrap and fix, and there are multiple efforts afoot.

Waldo Jaquith is building The State Decoded, an open-source system for storing and displaying state codes. It’s already deployed with Virginia’s laws. Public Resource.org is working on the long task of scanning and digitizing the print edition. And a group of residents are encouraging the council to write a better contract than the current one with LexisNexis, which doesn’t provide for copyright-free copies.

Meanwhile, it’ll be months or years until it’s possible to download DC’s laws onto your iPhone and clarify whether it is, indeed, legal to bike on a sidewalk (sometimes) or drink in public space (never).