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US Reps: Congress Must Address Copyright-Restricted Laws, Legal Codes & Standards

Bipartisan Group of Judiciary Committee Members Strongly Questions Access Barriers & Costs Faced by Citizens, Job Creators

WASHINGTON, DC - The US House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing yesterday to discuss the scope of copyright in America, focussing on existing copyright restrictions placed on public information like legal codes, laws and standards.  During the hearing, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress and witnesses expressed significant concerns with current copyright rules that block the open access to the law necessary for a healthy democracy, and that can even force Americans to pay hard-earned money to access the laws by which they must live.  Going further, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) stated that these issues must be addressed in any copyright reform legislation considered by the US Congress.

Key hearing exchanges and quotes below.  Click here for the witness list and written testimony.  Click here to watch the complete hearing.
WATCH Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA): “I agree with Mr. Issa that there’s no copyright reform that we should support that doesn’t resolve this issue.”

Key Quotes: Lofgren
“It seems to me very clear that you cannot have secret law. If you’re going to require people to adhere to a standard, that has to be in public domain. I’m sympathetic--I understand that there’s a business model set up--but you can’t allow the business model to trump the rule of law.”

“. . . If you incorporate by reference a document, that has to be part of the public record.”

“If there’s a fee, for example, that assumes that the public doesn’t have an interest . . . there’s a public interest in this; it’s not just the people in the business. It’s the public’s right to know. Is this of sufficient standard? Well, the only way you’re going to find out is to have free access to that. And to put up a screen to that, if it’s part of the law, is completely and wholly inappropriate.”

“I agree with Mr. Issa that there’s no copyright reform that we should support that doesn’t resolve this issue.”

WATCH House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA): “Copyright protection for laws, codes and standards appears to clash with the fundamental ability of our citizens to know what laws and regulations they must live by.” 

Key Quotes: Goodlatte
Copyright-restricted laws, standards and legal codes is “. . . An issue that has received less public attention, but is one that does go to the heart of how citizens interact with their government.”  

“It was also the subject of the very first copyright case heard by the Supreme Court in 1834.  

“Copyright protection for laws, codes and standards appears to clash with the fundamental ability of our citizens to know what laws and regulations they must live by.  

“It is fortunate that the number of states seeking to claim copyright protection on their laws and regulations, despite long-standing Copyright Office and Administration views to the contrary, has sharply declined.”

Key Quotes: Issa
“I just want to go on the record that in the copyright reform we’re considering in the committee, in order to have my vote in the final passage we’ll have to rectify the ambiguity in the law so that every American has free access to every law that he or she must live under.”

Who authors a law? . . . If the state of Idaho, the state of Georgia, the state of Mississippi, if they produce a law, every single person who voted for it is an author. It doesn’t belong to some entity by definition. . . . in its rawest form, isn’t in fact every single person who participates in a law, or the inclusion by association of a standard, in fact an author, and therefore, if I’m willing to release it to everyone, as an owner of that copyright, an undivided owner, don’t you ultimately have no possibility of protection?”

“If it is a voluntary standard it’s available for copyright, and I understand that. But if it is incorporated into law, at that point shouldn’t you object to it being incorporated or recognize that you’re waving any copyright objections from the public having free and fair access to essentially a law that they must comply with?”

Key Quotes: Malamud
“...The law belongs to the people. If we give those without great means a substandard web site as their only access to the law, we have put a poll tax on access to justice. When we require a license to speak the law, we have made a mockery of freedom of speech. When we deliberately restrict access to the law—including the public safety codes that protect our homes, families, and workplaces—we have violated the fundamental principle of the rule of law that underpins our democracy.”

Key Quotes: Johnson
“. . . materials created by the US government and state governments do not deserve copyright protection, nor have they ever received it.”

“At its core, this issue touches on the American ideal for justice--that we must know the laws that govern us. This right is fundamental to the rule of law that underpins our democracy, particularly when the concept that ignorance is no excuse pervades our process.  It is also central to upholding our system of checks and balances by holding congress accountable for legislation it passes or fails to pass.”

“As we review copyright protection in anticipation of the next great copyright act, we must continue to protect American’s access to laws and justice by protecting access to public materials in the public domain.”

“ It’s easy to take for granted how important public databases are in our increasingly digital democracy; unless public documents are digitized and available they are often out of reach of many.”

Key Quotes: Farenthold
“I’m going to have to agree that once something is enacted into law the public ought to have a right to get to it free.”

“Don’t the standard-setting organizations collect membership dues and generate revenue from the members who participate? I mean, I understand that in the old days it cost money to print up the books and distribute them, but now the marginal cost of making this information available over the internet is basically none.”

“And there’s zero value to a light bulb that doesn’t fit the light bulb standard, to use your analogy. Shouldn’t the private sector that benefits from these pay and the public should have them free?”

“Why shouldn’t I be able to print out a copy of the electric code to make sure the electrician hooked the greenwire up to ground in my house?”

If You’re Expected to Abide by the Law, I Think You Have a Right to Know What the Law Is.” - James Love, Director of Knowledge Ecology International
Key Quotes: Love
“I think that the US laws, works of federal employees, and federal laws and regulations are not subject to copyright. I think it would be good to extend that rule to laws at the state level, on everything from court opinion to regulations to statutes.”
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