Tech activist takes on governments over 'copyrighted' laws

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SEBASTOPOL, Calif.--From a corner of a nondescript office building at the edge of wine country, Carl Malamud is masterminding an electronic guerrilla war against governments across the nation.

Most geeks tend to be a bit obsessive, and Malamud is no exception. He's devoted his life to liberating laws, regulations, court cases, and the other myriad detritus that governments produce daily, but often lock up in proprietary databases or allow for-profit companies to sell for princely sums.

"One of the most important products our government makes is information," said the 49-year-old tech activist, who created a Lego animation to buttress his point. "We forget the important role of the government in producing these vast databases of information. That to me is infrastructure no different from electrical lines or roads."

Malamud's solution typically has been to create a proof-of-concept Web site, with the hopes of embarrassing government entities into building that infrastructure themselves. In the 1990s, his activism was responsible for persuading the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Patent and Trademark Office to make their data available for free on the Internet. Now, on his Web site, he's resumed posting hundreds of thousands of pages of government documents--all of which are, or at least should be, in the public domain.

This month, he's busy liberating California government codes, including San Francisco's building code, electrical code, fire code, and zoning code. That means purchasing printed copies for as little as $40 or as much as thousands of dollars, digitizing them, and posting them as PDF files without copy protection. Two months earlier, he posted the California Administrative Code.

One hitch is that San Francisco is one of those municipalities that claims its building code is copyrighted. (The notice says: "All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed by any means or stored in a database or retrieval system without prior written permission of the City and County of San Francisco.")

"I haven't heard from anybody" in the city government, Malamud said, since the documents were posted early last week. "That is a little surprising. I would have expected that someone would have at least called up and asked what we hoped to accomplish by doing this."

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