An Open Access Success Story, Just in Time for CALI

I’m traveling to Baltimore tomorrow, where I’ll be speaking later this week at UMD, one of the few law schools that can claim to be older than my own. The occasion is this year’s CALI Conference for Law School Computing, and I’ll be delivering an updated version of my talk on the open access movement.

As it turns out, I’ll also be delivering an unexpected bit of good news. The open-access project I blogged about here last October has yielded some impressive results. The project involved scanning and proofreading the House Judiciary Committee’s Report on the landmark Copyright Act of 1976. To my knowledge, the House Report has never been freely available online — a keenly felt omission, given how frequently United States courts in copyright cases rely on the Report as an aid to construction of the (frequently unilluminating) statutory text.

That problem has now been remedied.

Working in irregular bursts over the last eight months, volunteers at the English-language Wikisource project (a sister site of the much better known Wikipedia encyclopedia) have proofread all 370 page scans from the original House report, and the results have been stitched together to form a single document: Copyright Law Revision (House Report No. 94-1476). As the accompanying color-coded chart reveals, most pages of the report have been proofread by at least two different users, and the rest should be finished within a few weeks if current trends continue.

Here are just a few reasons why the Wikisource version of the House Report is the best now available anywhere.

  • It’s free. Like all U.S. government works, the text is in the public domain. And Wikisource, unlike proprietary database vendors, doesn’t purport to limit your freedom to copy or reuse the public-domain texts that are hosted on the site. If you look up the exact same report on Westlaw, for instance, you’ll find this rather forbidding warning:

    ©2008 Thomson/West. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a U.S. government officer or employee as part of that person’s official duties. All rights reserved. No part of a Westlaw transmission may be copied, downloaded, stored in a retrieval system, further transmitted, or otherwise reproduced, stored, disseminated, transferred, or used, in any form or by any means, except as permitted under the terms of the Subscriber Agreement wherein you obtained access or with prior written permission. Each reproduction of any part of a Westlaw transmission must contain notice of Thomson/West’s copyright. Westlaw, WIN, and KeyCite are trademarks registered in the U.S Patent and Trademark Office. WIN Natural Language is protected by U.S. Patent Nos. 5,265,065; 5,418,948; and 5,488,725.

    Where Thomson/West gets off telling me what I can and can’t do with information they don’t own is beyond me. By drawing the text of the House Report from the original U.S. Government publication, however, Wikisource’s version avoids entanglement with similarly overreaching proprietary claims.

  • It’s complete. Other online versions of the Report, as well as most hard-copy reprints (e.g., 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5659), omit certain portions. Typically, they exclude the text of the legislation (pp. 146 of the Report) as well as an especially lengthy, complicated three-column table that offers a side-by-side comparison of (1) the version of the bill that passed the Senate in 1975, (2) the text of the House’s amended version, and (3) the corresponding provisions, if any, of the Copyright Act of 1909 (pp. 186358 of the Report). Wikisource, in keeping with its general editorial philosophy, reproduces the complete text in its entirety; the site’s editors don’t substitute their own judgments about which portions of the document will be useful to you.
  • It’s pinpoint-hyperlink-able (I’m sure I’m overlooking a more technologically correct way of saying that). Did you spot those hyperlinks in the preceding paragraph? Mitigating the potential unwieldiness of posting a 370-page document as a single Web page is the fact that anchor elements are included to take you directly to any page within the document. So if you want to jump straight to the Committee’s discussion of fair use, for example, you can.
  • It’s (optionally) annotated. Wikisource reproduces original texts as published, warts and all. But the architecture of the site makes it easy to offer an alternative annotated version of the text where errors are marked and corrections offered.

Assisting with the creation of the online version of the House Report has been an educational experience, and I expect to have more to say about the pros and cons after my CALI talk. For now, though, I’m pleased just to report that an important and influential primary reference source in copyright law has, three decades after the fact, at last become freely available online.

3 Responses to “An Open Access Success Story, Just in Time for CALI”

  1. Awesome. This work is very important to overcoming reliance on Westlaw/Lexis and getting legal research out of the technological dark ages. Thank you.

  2. Indeed, thank you!

    “Where Thomson/West gets off telling me what I can and can’t do with information they don’t own is beyond me. ”

    This is exactly what the draft ‘casting treaty parked at WIPO is proposing: adding a layer of rights for broadcasters and publishers on top of any other rights…

  3. […] speaking tomorrow morning, delivering a revised version  of a talk I have given before on using peer-production techniques to foster open access. My slides are public, although I’m […]