California's building codes, plumbing standards and criminal laws can be found online.
But if you want to download and save those laws to your computer, forget it.
The state claims copyright to those laws. It dictates how you can access and distribute them -- and therefore how much you'll have to pay for print or digital copies.
It forbids people from storing or distributing its laws without consent.
That doesn't sit well with Carl Malamud, a Sebastopol resident with an impressive track record of pushing for digital access to public information. He wants California -- and every other federal, state and local agency -- to drop their copyright claims on law, contending it will pave the way for innovators to create new ways of searching and presenting laws.
"When it comes to the law, the courts have always said there can be no copyright because people are obligated to know what it says," Malamud said. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse in court."
Malamud is spoiling for a major legal fight.
He has begun publishing copies of federal, state and county codes online -- in direct violation of claimed copyright.
On Labor Day, he posted the entire 38-volume California Code of Regulations, which includes all of the state's regulations from health care and insurance to motor vehicles and investment.
To purchase a digital copy of the California code costs $1,556, or $2,315 for a printed version. The state generates about $880,000 annually by selling its laws, according to the California Office of Administrative Law.
Malamud isn't just targeting California. He posted safety and building codes for nearly all 50 states, and some counties and cities such as Sonoma County and Los Angeles.
This is not uncharted territory for Malamud. In 1994, he pushed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to post corporate filings online, opening the door for companies such as Google and Yahoo to create elaborate financial Web sites. In June, Malamud helped convince the state of Oregon to stop claiming copyright over its laws.
Now Malamud wants to do the same for California -- and everywhere else. And he's willing to go to court to make his point. He thinks the court system will rule in his favor, establishing a precedent that all government agencies must follow.
"If that happens, it opens the doors to innovation," Malamud said.
To get the California Code online, he digitally scanned a stack of documents that weighed 150 pounds. Now anyone can download the 33,000 pages, and print whatever they want from his Web site, public.resource.org.
Traditionally, governments provided publishing companies such as LexisNexis copies of laws to print and bind for people. It was practically the only way to get the laws distributed to people. LexisNexis claims to have the "world's largest collection of public records."
But the Internet has changed how people can share information. Increasingly, government agencies -- including Sonoma County -- contract with LexisNexis and other publishers to post their laws online.
"Most of the county staff now just look up the codes on the Internet," said Jennifer Barrett, Sonoma County's deputy planning director. "You can quickly search for keywords or a section. It's quite easy to find what you are looking for."
But LexisNexis does not format the online laws for easy printing or downloading, Malamud said. And that hampers how people can access the laws.