There’s a fair bit of hooha brewing at the moment in the Pacific northwest of the United States. The government of Oregon (which I’d always considered one of the better US states, what with the Decemberists, Boring, Cascadia and Miranda – although technically she was from Washington 😉 is trying to convince all and sundry that it owns copyright in the state’s laws. This apparently goes against years of legal precedents, and people are getting quite riled up about it.
Now, I’m not a lawyer – let alone an American lawyer – but it seems to me that there are two very important reasons that laws should be in the public domain.
The first is that laws define a code of behaviour that citizens of a state are expected to conform to. Placing restrictions on how citizens can access and distribute laws – say, by instance, copyrighting them – impedes citizens’ ability to know and understand their legal obligations. Worse, it makes it harder for citizens to know and claim their legal rights, which can lead to very dangerous situations (eternal vigilance et al.).
The second reason goes right to the heart of democratic government. The idea behind representative democracy is that the people elect representatives to act on their behalf in the governing of the state. Members of government are there to govern for the people – they write and approve laws for the people and on behalf of the people. This means that (by the purest principles of democracy) the laws already belong to the people. Copyrighting them is theft.
So that’s my view on the matter. Let’s hope the government of Oregon remembers who it works for sometime soon.