A Copyrighted Legal Code

Glenn Gordon, for the Pulitzer Center


I arrived in Liberia in January of this year. I don't remember when someone first told me that the law was "copyrighted" and effectively out of print, but I remember a complete and total lack of comprehension. How could this country, a Western post-conflict darling for all it's done to "rebuild," not have access to the letter of the law?

The situation was more complicated than it seemed. As Jina and I reported in earnest, we learned:

[Philip] Banks led a team of lawyers, a group called the Liberia Law Experts, to codify the country's newest laws. The project, which picked up where an earlier pro bono effort by late Cornell University professor Milton Konvitz had left off, won just over $400,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), according to e-mail exchanges between Banks and key legal players, obtained by Foreign Policy. Konvitz had codified laws up to 1978, just before Liberia plunged into 20 years of sporadic conflict. Those volumes list the copyright as belonging to the government of Liberia.

Defending himself in an interview with FP on Oct.27, Banks says he numbered, bound, and indexed the newer laws -- intellectual work that he claims as his original property. Without his efforts, he claims, Liberia's laws would exist only in loose-leaf pamphlets and would likely be lost. Banks says the DoJ funding wasn't enough to cover his costs. So when DoJ declined to give him more, he asserted a claim of copyright on the work, according to an explanation of the issue he sent by e-mail to a justice sector consultant in 2006. It's a claim he has appeared willing to relinquish several times for sums between $150,000 and $360,000, according to the e-mail exchanges, which were obtained by FP.

But Banks sees the copyright as an altogether different tool. "These are resources that you've had to expend in putting all of this together, and the question is, should you be compensated? I hold the view that you should," he asserted in his interview with FP. "And for folks that have said, no you shouldn't, I've said to them, go and get your loose-leaf." DoJ, meanwhile, couldn't find records of its agreement with Banks, but a spokesperson says it would be "highly unusual" for the department to have agreed to let Banks retain the copyright.

You can read the whole story here.

Ultimately, I question how many countries have "open secrets" not quite like this one, but equally debilitating. So many people in Liberia knew about this and no one seemed able to do much. I hope this article might change that.