You Cannot Have the DC Code


addendum: The problem is acquiring a public domain digital copy of the code, not about accessing the code: it’s accessible online. Read access vs ownership, a followup, for more information

You cannot have a digital copy of the DC Code. You cannot have a public domain version of the code, despite it being legally public domain.

The Code is the ‘compiled law’ of the District of Columbia: gun laws, bike laws, election rules, and most everything else.

The DC Government does not have a digital copy of the DC Code that it can give you, even if you ask nicely. It does not have a copy for itself, beside hardcover books and copyrighted CDs that it can’t legally copy or crack. There’s no clear backup plan if a contractor’s lights go off or server farm goes down - while a contract requires them to have backups, there’s no guarantee.

cc-by-na AJ Ashton

The DC government can’t make a pocket copy of the code, or a smartphone app to better inform policemen, because it doesn’t have a copyright-free copy. Open source developers can’t make better data portals for the code because they don’t either.

The refrain from open-government advocates is that one should 'ask for a copy’.

You cannot. There is no-one to ask who can give you one and who wants to. The government only has copyright-infected copies, and the contractor has no reason to endanger their information monopoly.

To preclude misunderstandings: this is not a failure of the Council itself. It has nothing to do with the drama around councilmembers or the DC government’s problems.

The Council composes and publishes its bills and makes every effort at transparency: this is a failure of the last step, in which the bill is compiled and de-facto owned by a private contractor.

This is not a question of hacking or technology. Writing a scraper for the portal is an afternoon project, but is illegal, and can be construed as a felony by the federal government.

clause from the 2012 Contract with West

This is a failure of the public/private contracting system and the government’s ability to write strong and precise contracts that are geared for the internet era.

This is a failure of Westlaw and LexisNexis. It’s possibly a reiteration of a well-known court case focused on their previous attempt to do the same thing: monetize what should be a basic unit of democracy.

Next up: how this is possible, what it means, and how we can fix it.

Posted Feb 20, 2013


Tom MacWright

I'm Tom MacWright. I work on tools for creativity at Mapbox. This is where I write about technology and everything else.