State Sues to Keep Laws Off the Internet


The man's name is Carl Malamud, and for the past twenty-five years he has made it his life's work to use the internet to make public information public. That might seem like an odd statement to make, however it turns out that Malamud has seized on a real issue that has some real significance.

For the past 25 years or so, Carl Malamud’s lonely mission has been to seize on the internet’s potential for spreading information — public information that people have a right to see, hear, and read. “Heroes for me are ones who take risks in pursuit of something they think is good,” says Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive and a frequent collaborator of Malamud’s. “He is in that category.”

Indeed, Malamud has had remarkable success and true impact. If you have accessed EDGAR, the free Securities and Exchange Commission database of corporate information, you owe a debt to Malamud. Same with the database of patents, or the opinions of the US Court of Appeals. Without Malamud, the contents of the Federal Register might still cost $1,700 instead of nothing. If you have listened to a podcast, note that it was Carl Malamud who pioneered the idea of radio-like content on internet audio — in 1993. And so on. As much as any human being on the planet, this unassuming-looking proprietor of a one-man nonprofit — a bald, diminutive, bespectacled 57-year-old — has understood and exploited the net (and the power of the printed word, as well) for disseminating information for the public good.

The guy sounds like something of a hero. And this is not an occupation without risk. He has been labeled a terrorist and sued by Georgia for publishing the body of state laws online.

The crux of the issue is what happens when a private business writes something like building codes which are then incorporated into the laws. Does the business that wrote those codes hold a copyright such that a citizen would then have to pay to get a copy of the laws that apply?

Indeed, for Malamud, the right to publish things like the annotated legal code of the state of Georgia and the European Union’s rules for infant pacifiers is an existential issue. Since 2007, he has been methodically publishing online—for free—the detailed codes for buildings, product safety, and infrastructure. These are often drawn up by private organizations, usually with the help of federal and industry experts. When legislators write regulations, they will often specify that these detailed codes are the blueprints that everyone must adhere to. The term for this is “incorporated by reference” (IBR). After this happens, the codes, every word of them, are the law. But the codes aren’t available on state or federal websites. To get to them, you have to go to the standards bodies, which often treat the codes like they still own them. But if you are, say, wiring a building, you must follow an electrical code that is part of the law, and there are serious consequences if you don’t.

Here is a cornerstone of Mr. Malamud's argument as relates to laws:

Malamud believes — and case law overwhelmingly seems to back him up—that no one can claim copyright on them, or limit access to them. Justice Stephen Breyer once remarked, “If a law isn’t public, it isn’t a law.”

This man is on a mission, and his energy is boundless. His guiding principle is simple: The law belongs to the people, and they have a right to free and unfettered access to any laws, codes, or regulations that might impact them. And it's hard to argue against that.

Source: Backchannel



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