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Imagine if the Founding Fathers tried to copyright the Constitution

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure tranquility . . . do ordain and establish that this Constitution shall not be duplicated, republished or rebroadcast without the written consent of, and payment to, future federal, state and local officials for revenue-generating purposes."

We must have missed that last section of our founding documents.

Apparently, California state officials haven't though. Laws may be of, by and for the people, but, according to the state, downloading them onto your computer is unlawful -- unless you pay for the privilege.

That's what Carl Malamud of Sebastopol discovered when he sought to post online all 38 volumes of the California Code of Regulations and the Sonoma County Code. These documents contain society's rules about everything from building standards, to traffic laws, to regulations for running a nursing home.

But state officials contend copyright laws give them the power to charge $2,315 for a printed version of the code and $1,556 for a digital version. The state generates about $800,000 a year by selling its laws for publication. Want to post them online? Forget about it. LexisNexis has the exclusive rights to distribute Sonoma County statutes.

If you're wondering how a private company can have such control over the publication of laws written for the public -- and devised through taxpayer funds -- you're not alone.

Adding to the absurdity of it all, California officials believe they're doing this to benefit the public. Noted Linda Brown, deputy director of the Office of Administrative Law, "We are obtaining compensation for the people of California."

Given that reasoning, maybe the state should consider charging for election results? Imagine the revenue potential.

Fortunately, Malamud has not given up. He has spent hours scanning the state code books into his computer, and on Labor Day he posted the basic safety codes for all 50 states. (To see his Web site, go to www.public.resource.org.)

He's likely to hear from the state's lawyers soon, but he's ready for a fight.


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