GitHub: Where Law Meets Technology?

It’s likely that many of you are not familiar with GitHub the collaborative management platform used by many open source software developers.   This is a place where the open source coding community share, review and develop their work.  So if you’re looking for code this is where you go.

However, as Thomas R. Bruce points out in a recent B-Screeds post over on Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, “people  are sticking legislation into GitHub at a furious pace.”  Legislation?  In an open source code hosting site you ask?

One of the strengths of GitHub is its versioning control feature and this it what seems to be drawing the “legal-information smart set” to think about hosting legislation there.  Bruce is skeptical however and notes that for U.S. Federal law “straightforward revision and versioning are not really what happens with most legislation.”

“Simple processes in which a single version of text is successively modified and the modifications absorbed into a series of versions and branches are not quite enough to map the eddies and backwaters of our [legislative] process, in which multiple competing drafts of a bill can exist at the same time, bills can be reintroduced in later sessions, and so on.”

The remainder of Bruce’ post explores why GitHub appears to be such a popular place for legislation these days.  He talks about three areas:  how the process of expressing legislation in GitHub might have an influence on how “the system ‘ought’ to be,” how making legislation available in GitHub puts “ownership of the law where it belongs,” and how it can potentially increases the democratization of the legislative process.

It’s an interesting discussion and he applauds the overall sentiment but he questions the validity of using GitHub as a tool to get law to the people.   He finds it “a little disturbing to think that we might be subconsciously restricting our definition of citizenship to those who can submit pull requests.”  A good point considering the average person doesn’t participate in GitHub unless they have experience as a coder.

Add to this his observation about the perception of work in the legal information environment:  “The biggest problem with legal information has always been that the people who create it have no reason to realize that there is a problem with access, because they themselves have it.”  He concludes that although GitHub is a great management tool for code it may not be the best place to develop legislation.

But some of the post’s commentators disagree.  The overall consensus seems to be that GitHub is starting to become a more non-coder friendly environment and that it does provide a wonderful space for these kinds of collaborative projects.

GitHub: It Ain’t Magic Pixie Dust is a recommended read and a very interesting example of the crossover between law and technology.

Some Recently Released Intellectual Property Resources

Michel-Adrien Sheppard, Reference Librarian at the Supreme Court of Canada, alerted us over on sLaw this week to a couple of newly released intellectual property resources.

The first is WIPO Lex a “a one-stop search facility for national laws and treaties on intellectual property (IP) of WIPO, WTO and UN Members.” Searches on the texts of IP laws can be done by: national law (Member combined with subject); browsing Member profile pages; treaty (by organization in combination with the type of treaty and/or subject); or a full text keyword search.

The lists of resources found on the Member’s Profile pages are for legislation that is currently in force, however “the Details page of each text includes information concerning any historical version or related legislation (including their texts). For example, information concerning related texts which amend, repeal or consolidates may be found on the Details page.” The listing for Canada currently provides access to 52 texts including the national laws, implementing rules/regulations, treaty membership information and related links. A directory of IP Offices is also provided.

The second is the historical resource Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900) “a digital archive of primary sources on copyright from the invention of the printing press (c. 1450) to the Berne Convention (1886) and beyond”. Development was funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) focusing on key materials from Renaissance Italy (Venice, Rome), France, the German speaking countries, Britain and the United States. National editors for each jurisdiction have selected a core set of documents for there areas providing many additional contextual documents which are linked back to the core materials. An international advisory board also reviewed the selections.

Resources can be accessed by date, place and language with browsing by person on both documents and commentaries. There’s also a static list of key words that is a bit too large to be entirely useful. Fortunately, although not immediately apparent, there is a keyword search (powered by Google) that lets you drill down a little easier. There’s also a very interesting ‘Interactive Timeline Navigation‘ feature that let’s you mouse over the time period and see the number of documents produced for each of the geographical regions.

Accessing individual documents in the database is not entirely intuitive. Clicking on Britain under the Core documents yields a chronological list of resources. Clicking on a date next to the title in this list takes you to the database record (which includes a useful abstract and brief bibliography). To see the document you then click on ‘Images’ which takes you to a document reader with the scanned image along side a transcription (if available). You can then open a larger PDF version of the scanned image for the best view of the original document. Here’s a page from Day’s The Cosmographical Glass, London (1559) for example. Translations are provided for many documents and well researched commentaries with thorough bibliographies are available for the core documents.

As Michel-Adrien says in his post “A Great Month for Online IP Resources“.