Thursday, July 3, 2008

Who Owns Legislative History?

In November 2007, Westlaw announced an exciting new database for legal researchers. The US GAO Federal Legislative Histories Collection (FED-LH) provides comprehensive legislative histories in PDF for most federal Public Laws enacted between 1915-1995 (although not all years are yet available). These histories compile the full text of "laws, bills, committee reports, Congressional Record documents, transcripts of hearings, and other documents" related to a particular Public Law. Although the Law Library has access to a variety of federal legislative history materials online, researchers usually must visit several different sources to access all of the various documents related to a particular law. The GAO histories on Westlaw seemed to make such effort redundant. So what could possibly be the problem?

In March 2008, the blogosphere raised concerns about the exclusive terms of the contract with Westlaw's parent company, Thomson West (now Thomson Reuters). The histories were compiled by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the "investigative arm of Congress." Because most federal government publications are considered to be in the public domain, government watchdogs expressed concern over the exclusive and commercial nature of the digitization contract, when GAO could have pursued digitization partnerships with universities or nonprofit organizations in order to make these legislative histories more widely--and freely-- available.

Carl Malamud, the founder of (previously discussed in this blog for its "Recycle Your PACER Documents" initiative), launched a Freedom of Information Act campaign to make the GAO histories freely available for digitization by the Internet Archive or other such organizations (follow his FOIA paper trail here). Although the initial response was discouraging, last week GAO released 10 DVDs of legislative histories to Malamud. More than 600,000 PDF files are included in this release-- the product of an abandoned in-house digitization attempt by GAO, prior to the Westlaw contract.

The initial release has been posted at However, Malamud has not stopped there. He's currently petitioning GAO to allow or the Internet Archive to scan the same materials which were provided to Westlaw, and plans to ask Congress for funding to make the same materials publicly available.

The excellent Free Government Information blog has been tracking the story (see all stories tagged "GAO"). Add the free GAO materials to your legislative history research repertoire and stay tuned for further developments in the story.