Oregon DOJ Uses Copyright to Keep Public Records Behind Paywall

Imagine a state in which the public records retrieval process is so convoluted that the government needs to publish a user manual explaining how to apply the public records law works. You would assume that the state would make this manual freely available online, right?

Not in Oregon. In that state, the printed how-to manual for accessing public records is available for $25, a fee they claim helps them cover the printing costs.

Apparently it’s still 1992 in Oregon, and widespread public adoption of the Internet hasn’t yet taken place. In all seriousness, though, it appears state officials could use a reminder that the marginal cost (MC) of distributing a document to over the internet is  $0.

Recently a University of Oregon economics professor has come under fire for trying to improve access to state law. Bill Harbaugh scanned the entire 326-page book and made it available for free on his website. The Oregon Department of Justice has threatened to take legal action on copyright infringement grounds if Professor Harbaugh doesn’t remove the manual from his website.

Professor Harbaugh accuses the state of using copyright to restrict the public’s access to government documents, saying that “trying to use copyright law to keep the public from getting information about how to get public records strikes me as wrong.” Making it difficult for citizens to access and understand the law is pretty shady, no doubt. Producing a helpful manual explaining the law and then using copyright to keep it from being distributed it is just asinine.