Tom MacWright

State Law is Public Domain. What's Public Domain?

Last time we talked about how the law is compiled in Washington, DC, by a combination of district employees drafting bills which are ‘changesets’ to the law, which are applied to the law by contractors. The end result is that the district itself does not hold a complete, copyright-free digital copy of the law - it is only held by the company they pay. Let’s discuss why this is a problem: is the law free in the first place, and what does free mean?

Federal and state laws are in the public domain: they cannot be copyrighted.

Copyright is a legal concept of exclusive rights: a copyright owner can decide to sell copies or licenses of ‘the work’, like music, text, or art. They can also let others use the work and declare how they want to be credited.

They can also use a copyleft license to free the work to some degree - they still own the copyright but allow others to copy it as if it isn’t copywritten. Familiar forms of copyleft are Creative Commons licenses and open source licenses like the GPL and BSD licenses.

Mona Lisas

The Mona Lisa(s) are Public Domain

Public domain is lack of copyright: there are no intellectual property rights for public domain works. That means you can sell copies of the Mona Lisa or Hamlet or operate a site like Project Gutenberg that gives away free public domain books. Public domain is a stronger form of freedom than copyleft. The copyright holder does not cede or license specific rights by their own volition: there is no copyright holder.

Edicts of government, such as judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments, public ordinances, and similar official legal documents are not copyrightable for reasons of public policy. This applies to such works whether they are Federal, State, or local as well as to those of foreign governments.

Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices 206.01

State laws cannot be copyrighted, because the US Government intelligently realizes that it’s important that citizens can access them freely, and copyright usually restricts distribution.

For instance, I can technically sell you a copy of Florida’s laws and make a profit off of it. And you can make a copy of that copy, and, in turn, make a profit off of that. And your friend can buy a copy, use it as a texture in their art piece, without asking anyone’s permission or giving anyone credit.

This is separate from the idea that ‘government works’ are public domain, which both excludes the District of Columbia (and Puerto Rico), and can be circumvented by using contractors to do work. ‘Works prepared by an officer or employee of the u.s. Government as part of that person’s official duties’ does not apply to employees of a company contracted to do a ground survey or study for the government: they can copyright their work.

Image: Law Library in Old Supreme Court (public domain image)