Outsourcing state law publication to a commercial entity isn’t inherently bad or a guarantee that access to the information will be limited. It does, however, complicate matters because it can mix copyrightable material into state created legal information that is not copyrightable. Related to this, I’m currently trying to figure out the division of labor between state employees and commercial publishers. Fortunately, in a 2006 response to a request for proposals from the state of Iowa, Lexis laid out exactly what they do with the 36 states that they work with. If you want to check it out, it starts on page 72.
Every state has a different amount of assistance from Lexis. I decided to look into catchlines, since that’s a fairly necessary item for navigating through law. What is a catchline? Here’s a shot from the Kentucky Revised Code:The catchline is the bold part – the part that gives you an idea of what that section is about and helps you navigate through the laws. It’s also, in electronic publications, pretty useful metadata to power a search algorithm result.
It can be a problem, especially for whole sale users of legal information, when commercial publishers write these because they can then be copyrighted by the commercial publisher. If you want to reprint or reuse the code, you’ll need to get permission from Lexis to use their intellectual property or take the time to strip all of this out.
How big a problem is this? Well, I counted and of the 36 states that Lexis works with, Lexis writes the catchlines for codes in 16 of them. That’s 44% of the time.
Like I’ve said, it’s important to remember that access to legal information isn’t always a binary of “is it available or not?” There’s a lot of little roadblocks in the way that can keep people from fulling accessing the law. Catchlines in statutory codes is just one example.