Opening Statements

You Gotta Fight for the Right to Publish

Posted Sep 1, 2008 8:10 AM CDT
By Arin Greenwood

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Photo by iStockPhoto.com

When Tim Stanley began putting Oregon’s statutes up on his website Justia.com, he probably should have been prepared for a little push-back. After all, he and some of his counterparts at sites like Public.Resource.org and Avvo.com have locked horns with state gov­ern­ments across the country over the right to post public information online.

Most of the time, they’ve won. But this time Oregon’s Legislative Counsel Committee fired back with a cease-and-desist letter, claiming the state owns copy­­rights to the arrangement and subject-matter compilation of the statutes, the pref­a­tory and explanatory notes, the tables, index and more.

Stanley of Palo Alto, Calif., enlisted Internet in­novator Carl Malamud in the fight. He runs Public.Resource.org out of Sebas­topol, Calif., and has successfully taken on the U.S. Securities and Ex­change Commission and C-SPAN on access issues.

The two questioned Oregon’s claim, arguing that pub­lic policy should weigh in favor of permitting Justia’s publication of Oregon statutes for free. Oregon made a counteroffer: For $15,000 a year, Justia Inc. (which provides search technology to ABAJournal.com) could license the state’s statutes. Stanley, who didn’t want a “patchwork of terms” for access among the various states, rejected the offer.

Lawyer-search site Avvo is engaged in a parallel struggle with several states over access to lawyer records. Avvo is trying to establish a rating system for lawyers based partially on data from public records that state agencies or courts maintain, but at least two states refused to provide the information. After petitioning the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Avvo obtained the records. But so far the company has been stymied in Illinois, says Avvo general counsel Josh King.

But for Stanley and Malamud, persistence is paying dividends; Oregon finally relented and decided to let Justia publish the state’s statutes—free.

The pair are working on agreements to publish the codes of all 50 states. As of mid-July, they’d posted 40. Though Oregon was the first state to send a C&D letter, Stanley and Malamud are expecting others. And the real losers, the legal publishers—with a $5 billion industry at risk—have yet to react.

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