How Tennessee Screws Consumers

While surfing the Web to find the exact text of the Tennessee law that requires companies to extend warranty protection for the amount of time a product spends in repair, I found this gem on the website of the Tennessee Dept. of Commerce and Insurance:

LexisNexis Law publishes the Tennessee Code Annotated. This is the only company authorized to publish Tennessee Consumer Laws on the Internet.

How much you want to bet that LexisNexis paid off the legislature in Tennessee to give them the exclusive rights to publish the law all Tennessee citizens are governed by?

One of the most basic rights, one so fundamental that we rarely even think about it, is the right to know the laws by which we are governed. This is actually one of the oldest rights in common law, one that goes back not even to the Magna Carta, but to the Roman Republic! That’s how basic this one is. Even the tyrannical, slave-holding, god-fearing, militaristic Romans accepted this right.

But not Lexis-Nexis or the state of Tennessee! They see nothing wrong with making the basic text of the law we’re governed by the private property of one company.

Not surprisingly when I tried to visit the LexisNexis web site to read the law, the site failed to load. Apparently it requires Java or something equally pointless. LexisNexis has lots of money for lawyers and lobbyists I’m sure, but not one penny for competent web design.

If I were a citizen of Tennessee I think I might feel compelled to commit a bit of civil disobedience by republishing that text myself. As is, since I’m not, I think I’ll leave that to the good people of Tennessee. However I am starting to wonder if LexisNexis has succeeded in bribing the legislature here in New York.? I’ll have to check on that.

6 Responses to “How Tennessee Screws Consumers”

  1. Brian Says:

    Actually, the LexisNexis version of the Tennessee code is much nicer than the version of the Iowa Code on the Iowa state government website, particular in regards to search. Plus, LexisNexis provides the Tennessee Code to the public for free–this is an important detail that you glossed over above.

    I don’t know the financial agreement between LexisNexis and the State of Tennessee but I wouldn’t be surprised if their “bribe” was paying to HTML-ize and text and pay for all the hosting costs (bandwidth, etc.), in return for the right to incorporate the code into their other products. They even seem have a contractual obligation to ensure that their published copies of the code are accurate. So, it could very well be that LexisNexis is saving the State of Tennessee a significant amount of time and money. See the Tennessee State Code, Section 1-1-113 (Expenses – Costs of publication – Price): “In contracting for the price at which the Tennessee Code Annotated and its pocket supplements and replacement volumes shall be sold in Tennessee, the commission is directed to keep the price at the lowest figure which in its discretion is consistent with high editorial and publishing quality.”

    I don’t know how it would be illegal to publish the Tennessee Code on your own website, as long as you don’t copy it off of LexisNexis. (In fact, I think it is even legal to just copy-and-paste it off of LexisNexis–that is basically what LexisNexis Law is for.) For example, you could go to the library and copy it out of a printed version (which is probably published by LexisNexis, by the way), perhaps directly into WordPress. You might not have the official blessing of the State of Tennessee like LexisNexis, but you aren’t prohibited from doing it either.

    That said, the applet is annoying. It does seem like everything the applet does could actually be done better using modern (or even old MSDN-style) DHTML. But, the code was still available to me even without using the applet.

    – Brian (Not a Lawyer)

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    It’s hard to tell because the law is hidden behind a site I still haven’t been able to access, but my reading of Tennessee’s claim is that it is indeed illegal to copy and paste the code off of LexisNexis’s web site and republish it on my own. Similarly it would be illegal to copy it out of a book in a law library, and type it into a web page. This is not the case for U.S. federal laws, but state laws are a little different, and of course may vary from state to state.

    Building codes are a particular problem. Smaller jurisdictions (i.e. any city smaller than Chicago) often adopt copyrighted model building codes in toto, with the encouragement of the copyright owners. In these cases, the local government may not even own its own laws. (The case law on this is very confused though, and in active dispute in several jurisdictions.)

  3. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    The Iowa code you mention is not a model of good web design, but I could read it. That’s more than I can say for the Tennessee code. One thing both sites demonstrate is the importance of publishing the law in simple, plain vanilla HTML with no gewgaws: no Flash, no java, no JavaScript, no DHTML; just HTML with hyperlinks.

    If the laws allow it, interested parties can take the official code and republish it in a better format, for their own definition of “better”. However if the laws are not freely (as-in-speech, not beer) available to all, then this is no longer possible; and we must labor under the incompetence of whatever party is granted the exclusive right to publish the law.

  4. Brian Says:

    I didn’t notice that if Java is completely disabled, then the site just refuses to display anything useful. That is exceptionally bad. I had waited for the applet to load and then just ignored it, thinking that if Java was disabled the site would still work.

    After I posted my original comment, I dug around a little to find out if the Tennessee Code is in the public domain. Firstly, I noticed that there are two versions of the Tennessee code: annotated and unannotated. Lexis/Nexis seems to rightly own the copyright for all the annotations they include in the annotated version. Presumably, Lexis/Nexis does not own any copyright over the unannotated version. But, they seem to have chosen not to publish the unannotated version, and it seems that that unannotated version does not appear anywhere on the internet. I wouldn’t be suprised if all printed versions of the code were also annotated, thus making a freely-copyable version of the code impossible to get. That does seem quite dubious.

    Works created by the federal government cannot be copyrighted but there is no similar explicit restriction regarding state statutes listed in federal copyright law, that I could find. It seems to be ambiguous. But, state codes are in essense just collections of facts, and facts are explicitly deemed uncopyrightable by federal law, so it seems like the actual code cannot be copyrightable. Futhermore, since every citizen has an obligation to know every law that applies to him (“ignorance of the law is no excuse”), a very compelling “fair use” claim could be made for non-profit reproduction and even publication of state codes.

    It turns out that Lexis/Nexis had at one point been sued another company, West, for copyright infringement regarding similar legal documents. That case was settled out of court, with the result being that both companies now publish those legal documents. What’s more, Lexis/Nexis had sued another company for the exact same thing. THAT case was also settled out of court. It seems like, these “law publishers” try to scare away potential competitors with lawsuits, but if the competitor has the resources to fight back, then the “original” publishers try to settle the cases out of court so that there is never a ruling explicitly saying that they have no copyrights to the materials.

    – Brian (Still not a lawyer)

  5. Bob DuCharme Says:


    (First, note that I’m no longer a LexisNexis employee.) Your complaint that the interface shouldn’t require Java is legitimate, but that’s about it. Ignoring the qualifier “on the Internet” in the “gem” that you quote has enabled you to make some huge leaps. Authorizing one company (as opposed to several companies, which is what the “gem” is saying) to publish their laws on the Internet does not make those laws the private property of that company. It means that they got the gig to put them online as a supplement to the hard copy bound versions of a state’s laws that are available in any large library in any state. All states have laws requiring that their laws are available to their citizens, and while going to the library is more trouble than demanding that the Java applets work on every machine you may own, it’s no more trouble than it was 10, 50, or 100 years ago. The citizens have access to their laws. TN citizens with Java installed have more convenient access than others, which is certainly a shame, but your rants about bribing, civil disobedience, and slave-owning states are pretty silly. Republishing unannotated laws wouldn’t be civil disobedience at all, and would hardly raise any eyebrows, because, to repeat myself, the laws of TN are not “the private property of one company.” (Annotations are, because the company paid their employees to write them.)


  6. Boocher Says:

    tennessee is a fraud, they make up laws as they see fit. I am going to bat for the people that have purchased homes in Tennessee, especially the smaller towns, wherein the builders of Tennessee MAKE THIER OWN rules on construction and warranties.

    Tennessee is not a third world country, yet the hillbillys think it is. Look for my name in the news and papers as it will surely be there

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