This is a live post from the Reinvent Law Silicon Valley conference in Mountain View, CA. Please forgive any typos or errors in conveying what speakers say.

Who Owns the Law? Ed Walters of FastCase

Government works are public so on its face, public owns the law. But Ed says it’s not so simple. If you think about ownership of the law in terms of traditional property rights, then for many years, Lexis and West have owned the law.

Says Westlaw walked into DOJ and stole the in-house KM system being built, Juris. West said in 1983 that it wanted to help DoJ maintain its system. As added bonus, West would add cites to Juris. When contract came up for renewal in 1993, West wanted 3x as much for renewal. West said original contract gave Westlaw ownership rights to any co-mingled content, which addition of cites did.

Fastcase, a legal research company, wanted to put Georgia code online. When Fastcase went to upload, saw a LexisNexis copyright notice. Ed checked with L-N, which said it did indeed own the GA code. b/c LN writes headlines, claimed ownership of GA code. Ed said, ok, so I want to license. Four months later, LN said never will we license the GA code to you. (A slide shows flipping the bird.)

No one, however, thinks that state statutes can be copyrighted. Turns out to be cheaper to re-write catch-lines in code so Fastcase did that rather than litigate.

Only Thomson Reuters and Reed Elsevier have claimed ownership of the law. Should we stand for this? Should we care?

Ed says best versions of state codes are now maintained in academia. They are visual and better than commercial versions. We should not force innovators to have to buy code to build innovative new products. We should care that citizens do not have unfettered access to the law.

Allowing the big companies, with the big bucks, to push around everyone on ownership of law stifles competition and innovation. But the law is ripe for revolution and re-invention. Since law is not under copyright, reinvention can happen even faster than in music or movies. Also, law has a deep inherent architecture that makes it a fascinating data set with which to work. Ed, as example, shows a data visualization of FastCase presents to help users find and understand the law. If the data are available, much innovation is possible.

Says he does not fully blame TRI or Reed b/c they put out good products. But states have more obligation to make the law both free and open. Free is not enough; open is key: it needs to be in open formats, authenticated, and available for bulk download.

Who owns the law? We do. Law is not jut dusty books. It’s an important achievement of human species. Law is moral document. We cannot cede ownership to private companies. Take our law back.