Tom MacWright

The Code: Access vs. Ownership

My previous article about the inaccessibility of complete copies of the DC Code was read and commented on pretty widely. I hope that it was a useful introduction to an important issue, but it’s evident that some of it needs more explicit explanation.

The first is the difference between access and ownership.

Quite a few people posted a link to Westlaw’s portal that gives you access to the law, and asked - if you can get the law here, what’s the problem?

The problem is that you can’t have a a complete, digital, public-domain copy, despite the code being technically and legally public domain.

The West portal is neither copyright-free or nor copyable, and West has gone to great lengths to guarantee those things.

Since the portal has West’s copyright embedded and a Terms of Service that restricts automated copying, there is no other complete, online copy of the code. This means that we’re reliant on West as the sole provider of the code and the portal. So it’s both a single point of failure, and a single source with no competitors. The inadequacy of the portal, like its inability to be linked to, or to allow anonymous browsing, isn’t avoidable: it’s the only option, by design.

the constitution

This is the US Constitution. The original version is in the National Archives and is very important. If someone spilled ink on it, or accidentally burned it, everyone would be angry. But we would not lose the content of the constitution.

This is because there are many copies. And how can there be copies? Because of the public domain, and simple, unfettered access to the text.

Here’s a printable constitution. Here’s a $1 pocket constitution. And copyleft images on Flickr, and public domain images on WikiMedia.

You can download the constitution as a PDF, or as a Word file, or as a database. You can also do interesting things with it - text analysis, art pieces, and so on - you can also just store it away, just in case you need it or you expect the original to eventually yellow and crinkle.

It is fair to say that the ownership of the Constitution is yours.

Compare this to a copyrighted work. A streaming television show is available to millions of people, but, barring illegal activity, there are no privately-held copies. It is like a text behind glass - you can view it, but the owner can take it away whenever they want. There’s a fundamental and practical difference: you can play an Elvis record even if the recording company and the artist is long gone, but if Spotify goes offline tomorrow, your ‘streaming collection’ is no longer. Copies matter.

On the surface this may seem like a detail or something that only programmers really want. But it’s quite important.

This ownership of a complete, legally-free text is the difference between the DC Code being available widely and it being extremely restricted. A widely available code could be distributed in free pamphlets, in smartphone applications for citizens and in every police car’s laptop. It could be analyzed for changes so that citizens can subscribe to passages and know if they need to adjust to new bike laws, gun laws, or restrictions on how they manage their business. Or it can be included in a country-wide system for open codes like The State Decoded.

Without that, it’s available in a single, sub-par portal and hardcover books and CDs that you can’t legally copy.

Beyond the present day, the ability to copy the text is the difference between being able to archive versions in forward-looking systems like It’s the difference between the council being able to build an in-house system for backup versus being dependent on a contractor with uncertain backup plans and future stability.

So: the code in the public domain, like the Constitution. But it is managed more like a copyrighted work, because we cannot get complete, digital copies of it.