WE GET A LOT OF REFERENCE QUESTIONS AT THE KING COUNTY LAW LIBRARY.
THE REFRAIN GOES THAT BECAUSE WE AREN’T PRACTICING ATTORNEYS, WE CAN’T OFFER LEGAL ADVICE—AS LIBRARIANS, WE CAN ONLY OFFER RESOURCES.
THAT SAID, SOME QUESTIONS ARE VERY INTERESTING & INSPIRE ME TO DO SOME RESEARCH OF MY OWN, COLLECTED HERE IN THIS COLUMN. DON’T CONSTRUE THIS AS LEGAL ADVICE!
Ed. Note: RRQ Nation has spoken – comments are enabled!
Ed. Note #2: Comments require a log-in… boo! Comments are disabled.
This is going to be a short one!
What I intended for this month is being pushed to next—it’s something I’ve had in mind for a while re: epistemology at the law library, but it’s already 12 paragraphs long and I haven’t really reached a thesis. It might end up being a bit of a Kinder egg, like me: appealing and sweet, but ultimately hollow. Stay tuned!
I just got this question: Are the RCWs protected by copyright?
On its face, I want to say, NO. Because how could they be? But of course, we shy away from off-the-cuff Yes/No answers, and perhaps it’s not so straightforward…
I fired up copyright.gov and clicked through these pages:
Ctrl+F for “law” “laws” “statutes” etc. (not helpful when investigating copyright “law,” hmm) reveals nada.
This page says that copyright “does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something,” which, that sounds a whole lot like the law but they won’t come right out and say it!
We don’t see a lot of federal stuff here—my beloved Washington Practice, WSBA deskbooks -worthless! So, I head on over to old google.com and search “are state laws protected by copyright,” which I acknowledge is a genius-tier move. Mercifully there was a Wikipedia page that discusses this very issue, complete with case law and USC citations.
When I was in high school, Wikipedia broke through as a major resource, but as students we were discouraged from using it at all – “anybody can edit it!” Nowadays, I don’t think that Wikipedia is some bogeyman from which librarians should shy away, nor is it the end of the line, research-wise. I think of it as a valid jumping off point. Check out the references, click on the citations, check the cases in Westlaw! That is, the customer should do all this—to me, my emailing them the Wiki link (and some context) constituted my walking away from this query.
One last thing about this question is that it was framed as a hypothetical: the classic case of two buddies resolving a bet. I shared the above information just as if there was active litigation, so it’s not like I dismissed it, but there’s something in me that flinches when questions of this nature come in, and I can’t decisively say why.
One angle is that while we’re open to the public, we are a “special library” – you have to be doing legal research to physically use our space. But it’s true that this is legal research… and then some part of me wonders, “to what degree does it matter if it’s real?”
What makes a case or a legal question “real?”
It’s not a likelihood of a court win, as to operate by that standard would be unjust and impossible to determine anyway. Indeed, there are folks who come into the library in the throes of mental crisis, and their questions are often nonsensical, but ultimately, as librarians, we do try and answer as best we can. And, like this question, these are often interesting legal questions! So, to a large degree, we have to take each reference question as it comes and respond to it on its face, without thinking of its reality-based utility or outcome.
The question “what makes something real?” —is it worth considering at all? Perhaps my forthcoming column on epistemology in the courthouse will shine some light on this!