Almost all those books…
government created content that someone paid for!

I am a huge proponent of state governments helping their citizens understand the judicial system, and help with the access to justice, but I think that a recent action from the State of Montana is sliding down a slippery slope in its actions to enforce copyright on its forms listed through the State’s Law Library website. The Readers’ Digest version of the situation is that the Montana State Law Library created a legal forms data bank, claimed copyright to those forms and specifically stated that the forms could not be sold in commercial format. Like and any red-blooded American company, an operation out of Helena, Montana took those free forms, repackaged them and sold them for $389. And, as any red-blooded American would do in response, the State of Montana sued the company for copyright infringement. (See the whole story here.)

My feelings are similar to my fellow Texan, Don Cruse:

I agree the forms should be free & that people shouldn’t be misled into paying for free forms. So the intent is noble enough. But it’s still awkward to see a state agency wielding copyright over state-published legal materials.

I think that the State of Montana’s heart is in the right place in trying to protect its citizens against paying for things that it can get for free, but at the same time, there has to be a point in which when citizens are better informed about how to access justice, whether for free or for a fee, trumps the paternalistic view of the State that  it alone should be the educator of its people.

Let me make this point clear — All Government Information Should Be Available To Its Citizens In An Easy-To-Use Format, and Free — however, there should be absolutely no limitation on the public to repackage this information and resell it to those same citizens. In a private email, my co-blogger, Toby Brown says it best:

Companies resell govt content all the time – usually with some value-add like Westlaw. They [the governments] are just upset since stupid people pay them.

Just as you can’t protect your children from making bad decisions, State governments just can’t expect to sue every company for reselling government created content. Yes, your citizens should be better informed that they can get the same information for free, but just as every parent experiences, sometimes you just got to be grateful that they got to the right place, even if they did it in a dumb and costly way.

Claiming copyright on information that was created in the environment of a government action… paid by government officials, either through tax payer money, or filing fee collections… that information belongs to everyone. That includes those that are smart and creative enough to repackage that information and sell it to those that are not smart enough to realize they can get that information for free.

Again, I’m a big believer that government information should be free, but I’m also a big believer that government information should be freely available for anyone to use for private or commercial purposes. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. I applaud Montana’s effort to make its information free and accessible to its citizens (or anyone with Internet access), but I think they are entirely mis-guided in thinking that anyone that repackages this same information for profit is a charlatan. I would argue quite the opposite… they are assisting governments in providing access to justices, and should not be punished for that effort.