ResearchWire - Illustrating Dave's Axiom: United States Code - Free -- on the Web

Genie Tyburski is the Research Librarian for Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the editor of The Virtual Chase:TM A Research Site for Legal Professionals.

(Archived December 15, 1998)

Three non-commercial sites offer free access to the United States Code -- Cornell, the House of Representatives, and GPO Access. Each possesses certain strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Code at Cornell is one year older than the other two. But the other two don't contain hyperlinks that allow researchers to jump to referenced sections. Nor do the others provide for expanding a title or chapter so that researchers may browse it as if it were a book.

Perhaps these strengths fail to overcome concerns about superceded material at Cornell. In fact, during September, while speaking to various audiences, I asserted that the then faulty update feature hindered serious use of this product. But as my co-worker and friend, Dave Webster, is fond of saying, "If you don't like what you see today on the Web, stop and disconnect. Take a deep breathe. Then, reconnect. Chances are, what you didn't like has changed."

Too true. As of this writing, Cornell has replaced the faulty update feature with brief instructions on how to find amendments to this 1996 version of the Code. Now, rather than bemoaning the loss of another Web product, legal professionals may get down to the business of conducting federal statutory law research.

Let's begin with a simple citation search for 17 USC §603 regarding copyright importation prohibitions. Starting with GPO Access, first read about the contents of the USC database. Note that the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives prepared the Code, that the database contains laws in effect as of 16 January 1996, and that sections affected by laws passed since this date include a note identifying the amending law.

Connect to the Code and select all databases from the pull-down menu. Then enter the following query in the search box: 17usc603*. According to the instructions, researchers should not use spaces. Moreover, they should place an asterisk at the end of a citation to retrieve subsections.

The search retrieves four USC documents -- 1) the text of the section in effect as of 1 January 1994, 2) the text of the section in effect as of the 16 January 1996, 3) Supplement II containing amendments for Titles 1 through 26, and 4) the text of the section in effect as of the 6 January 1997. At first glance, this may seem a confusing mix of documents. But with an eye to historical research, this retrieval makes sense. For example, legal professionals requiring a copy of the law in effect from its enactment through 1993 would select document number one. Those wanting the current state of the law -- at least as current as this source provides -- would download document number four.

Document Four, containing the law in effect as of 6 January 1997, also reveals that the 105th Congress, 1st Session did not amend this law. Therefore, we actually possess a copy current as of 14 May 1998. To discover amendments since the May date, we must use the House of Representatives Law Revision Counsel's U.S. Code Classification Tables, which we will review later.

Moving over to Cornell, first read the Credits and Conditions statement. It reveals that this site offers a version of the Code prepared by the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives and distributed by the Government Printing Office (GPO). The version contains laws in effect as of 16 January 1996.

Now scroll down the page to locate a form for entering a USC title and section. Search for 17 USC §603.

Upon retrieval of the law, the monitor refreshes to a page consisting of two frames. The lower frame contains the text of §603 with hyperlinks to other referenced sections. The upper frame stores navigational commands and two important hyperlinks.

The hyperlinks -- in this case, one for Title 17, Copyrights and one for Chapter 6, Manufacturing Requirements and Importation -- enable browsing. Follow the link for Chapter 6. Note that a hyperlinked outline of Chapter 6 now appears on the screen. Follow any of the links to review another section of Chapter 6.

Now go back to §603. Follow the link for Title 17, Copyrights. A hyperlinked outline of Title 17 appears. To see an outline of any chapter, simply follow its path.

Go back to §603 again. Let's examine the navigational features.

Click on Previous. This retrieves §602. If another section followed §603, a Next navigational button would also appear in the top frame.

After returning to §603, click on Notes. Notes retrieves the history of §603. Observe that Notes indicates §603 was enacted during 1976 and not since amended.

What we retrieved is the law in effect on 16 January 1996. Now we must update it.

Return once again to §603. Click on Update. Review the instructions on updating this version of the Code. Does it seem that most of the research lies ahead?

Yes. Well, hold that thought.

Let's connect to the Code at the House of Representatives. About half-way down the opening page, we learn the source of the Code -- the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives -- and its effective dates. Yes, that's dates, plural. Titles 1 through 8 have an effective date of 26 January 1998 while titles 9 through 50 are current through 6 January 1997. Keeping Dave's axiom in mind, it should not surprise researchers to discover a change in these dates upon reading this article.

Further down the page, find the link labeled "limit your search to a particular title, section, or similar subdivision" and follow it. Enter 17 and 603 in the Title and Section fields, respectively. This retrieves a link for 17 USC §603. Note the effective date contained in the link -- 6 January 1997.

Follow the link to retrieve the copyright importation prohibition provisions. Compare the text to the text retrieved at Cornell. The House version incorporates an amendment passed 2 July 1996.

Next, locate the left and right arrows appearing at the top and at the bottom of the page. Use them to browse the text of the Copyright Act. The left arrow takes researchers to the previous section while the right arrow delivers the next section.

Do we now have a current copy of 17 USC §603? We may, but we will not know with certainty until we update it using the Law Revision Counsel's U.S. Code Classification Tables. The Tables list sections of the Code that have been amended by current law. Arranged by public law number or USC citation, tables for the 104th Congress cover laws enacted through the end of 1996 whereas tables for the 105th Congress 1st Session cover laws passed through the end of 1997, or Public Laws 105-1 through 105-153; and tables for the 105th Congress 2nd Session cover Public Laws 105-154 to 105-235, or from 1 January to 14 August 1998.

Since Title 17 at the House of Representatives contains laws in effect as of 6 January 1997, we need only check the tables for the 105th Congress. Using those arranged by USC citation, we discover no amendments directly affecting §603. One amendment, however, affects §601 -- Public Law 105-80.

Interested in this related section, we must now retrieve a copy of Public Law 105-80. To do this, we connect to Thomas or to GPO Access. At GPO Access follow the Databases link and then select Public Laws. Highlight the public laws database for the 105th Congress; then enter the following query in the search box: "public law 105-80." Use opening and closing quotation marks.

The query retrieves Public Law 105-80, which makes technical amendments to Title 17. To review a slip copy, select the link labeled PDF. This refers to portable document format, a desktop publishing style that gives electronic files the look and feel of print. To open a PDF document, researchers must first install the free Adobe Acrobat reader.

Thomas, on the other hand, facilitates locating a new law by public law number. Follow the link for Public Laws [of the 105th Congress] by Law Number. Locate 105-80 numerically. Note that Thomas also provides information about the legislative history of this law.

Thus far, we have reviewed procedures for locating current law by citation. Many times, though, researchers have only a concept. How then do we search these products using keywords?

All three sources offer some query formulation instruction; but for the most part, as is often the case with free Web databases, researchers must discover how they work with little assistance. Let's examine how each uses key terms to retrieve sections of the Code.

Starting with Cornell, first review the search instructions. Devoted Boolean searchers may find this brief discussion of concept searching and relevancy ranking beyond comprehension. Suffice it to say the technology possesses an intuitive ability to understand what a researcher wants. Of course, this assumes researchers describe what they want adequately, and other such details.

Now, let's search for a provision of the Labor Code providing employees with continued health care coverage upon job loss. Following Cornell's recommendation to search a specific title of the Code when possible, we opt to search Title 29.

Enter the query: continu cover benefit. Observe the lack of Boolean connectors. Only spaces appear between words or partial words. Researchers may use partial words like "continu" because the engine automatically truncates terms to pick up root stems.

While the search retrieves more than 200 documents, the third item -- §1163 -- pertains to a "qualifying event" under COBRA, the law we seek. Upon following this link, we may browse the law on continuation coverage of employee benefits.

As with the earlier citation search, though, we must update this law using the classification tables. Clicking on the Update button in the top frame of any USC section, we find instructions for discovering current law. We learn that because our law contains an effective date of 6 January 1996, we must update it using all classification tables.

Even though Cornell offers copies of the tables, I recommend using them at an official site -- the House of Representatives. Retrieve all tables for the 104th and 105th Congresses. Look for amending public laws, and then follow the steps outlined earlier to retrieve them.

Now let's search for the same law at GPO Access. GPO Access does not provide search forms. Highlight all databases. To search Title 29, begin the search statement with 29usc*. Enter the query like this: 29usc* AND (continu* ADJ cover*) AND benefit*.

Use asterisks to truncate search terms. Capitalize Boolean connectors. The connector, ADJ, finds term a preceding term b by 20 characters or less.

The search retrieves 23 documents. The first relevant document appears as number seven. Unfortunately, researchers cannot browse other relevant sections by retrieving this document. Moreover, to discover current law, they must locate the 1996 copy of each relevant section and then update it using the classification tables at the House of Representatives.

Let's try this search at the House of Representatives. First, follow the link labeled "limit your search to a particular title, section, or similar subdivision." Type 29 in the Title field to limit results to the Labor Code, then enter this query: benefit* NEAR/20 (continu* NEAR/5 cover*). Truncate terms with an asterisk. Capitalize all Boolean connectors. The Boolean connector, NEAR/, means the same as W/ on Lexis/Nexis -- find term a within X words of term b. The Boolean connector W/ at the House of Representatives means find term a at least X words before term b.

This search retrieves 13 documents -- a more manageable number than results at Cornell. Again, following the link for the third item, §1162, researchers may browse the law on continuation coverage of employee benefits. Remember to update it with the classification tables for the 105th Congress.

The House of Representatives also enables specialized searching. For example, find the text of an executive order using this formula: ex W/2 ord W/2 [executive order number] /F:EXEC. Replace the phrase in brackets, and the brackets, with the executive order number, like this: ex W/2 ord W/2 12640 /F:EXEC. The search retrieves executive order 12640, as amended, which established a presidential committee on the employment of people with disabilities.

As illustrated, all three Codes work differently. Each offers certain attractions. For example, researchers may obtain superceded laws at GPO Access, perform complex queries at the House of Representatives, or navigate the text of the USC easily at Cornell. Each also has weaknesses. Navigating Code sections at GPO Access proves next to impossible, bringing a Cornell Code section up-to-date requires consulting more classification tables, and researchers wanting a table of contents for a title or chapter cannot retrieve one at the House of Representatives.

As with most research, on or off the Web, selecting a source depends in large part on the information desired and what a researcher already knows about the topic. For example, researchers not having an exact citation, or having trouble locating one, may want to begin with Cornell, where they can browse relevant sections of the Code. Those preferring Boolean to concept searching may want to use the House or GPO Access sites.

On the other hand, researchers disliking today’s free USC choices might just take a deep breath. Remember Dave's axiom. Things very likely could have changed during the reading of this article.


Free U.S.C. on the Web

Recommended Readings

  • Kelley, Sally J. "The United States Code on the Web: How to Search and Update It," originally published at 29 SWALL Bull. 5 (May 1998); revised 8 August 1998. Online. Internet. 8 October 1998. Available at Caveat: This article pre-dates changes at Cornell that corrected a faulty update procedure.

  • Platt, Nina. "Federal Legislative Materials," 8 Law Office Computing 85 (Oct./Nov. 1998)