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UELMA: A Law We All Can Love

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Absence of Malice movie poster. Image from the Library of Congress collections. While most of us love a good movie about lawyers and the law, few of us read actual legal documents for fun.

Well, I did say FEW of us…

Earlier this summer I wrote a post about the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act, a uniform law that will establish digital preservation protections for “official” state government electronic legal materials by requiring that official publishers provide for the preservation and security of the records.

It’s hard for me to restrain my enthusiasm for the Act (as nerdy as that sounds) because I’m convinced that its uptake will establish a digital preservation implementation framework for digital materials.

UELMA has been “targeted” by the Uniform Law Commission; states are encouraged to include it in their future/upcoming legislative enactment plans. You can track the activity at the Uniform Laws Commission’s Legislation page, but there are still a number of technical hurdles to address before the Act gets wide uptake in the states.

With that in mind, the Library hosted a meeting at the beginning of November, convened by the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), to get feedback on different methods to authenticate digital legislative data.

The meeting brought together representatives from Georgetown University, the Legislative Counsel of California, the National Archives, the Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes and the Library of Congress for a wide-ranging discussion on authenticity and preservation issues.

In Section 5 of the Act, an official publisher of electronic legal materials is required to authenticate the record, which means that they provide a method for a user to determine that the record is what it purports to be and is free from tampering or corruption (PDF).

"Authentication Issues" from user cambodia4kidsorg on Flickr
Authentication Issues from user cambodia4kidsorg on Flickr

The Act establishes a framework for providing online legal material with the same level of trustworthiness traditionally provided by publication in a law book, but it is decidedly technology-neutral when it comes to determining how this might be implemented in practice.

My colleague Kate Zwaard attended the meeting and touched on some of the authenticity issues in her “Hashing Out Digital Trust” post. She did a great job describing some of the available technologies, but was especially clear in noting that there may well be different authentication levels of service depending upon the materials in question and the user’s needs.

The challenge for state governments is to understand the different technical standards for authentication (of which there are many) and their associated costs (also potentially many) while identifying their user’s needs and the degree of authentication reliability they need. Simple solutions may do the trick in many instances.

For example, the Minnesota Revisors office demonstrated a simple prototype for authenticating Minnesota Statues. A user can authenticate a PDF of a downloaded Minnesota statute by visiting a dedicated page on the Revisor’s website, uploading the document through a simple web interface, and waiting for a return message indicating a successful authentication. If any changes have been made to the file since it was originally downloaded from the Revisor’s website the authentication will fail. (This site is still in development and is not yet publicly available.)

In light of UELMA and the requirement to make California Codes available to the public in electronic form, the Legislative Counsel of California is interested in exploring options of authentication and has been able to do so as part of the NDIIPP work with MHS.  The Legislative Counsel will be producing a white paper that will be available on the MHS’s NDIIPP project authentication webpage by the end of 2011.  This white paper will discuss a variety of authentication tools and their associated costs.

This will supply a useful input to ongoing discussions in the states on implementation of the law, including discussions on approval that will take place among the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates at the ABA Midyear Meeting in February, 2012 in New Orleans.

More to come…


  1. A very interesting post thank you.

    When discussing authentication of digital objects it is also important to consider rendering applications.
    A file intended to be rendered with one application can sometimes (for some times of objects, often) be rendered differently with a different application.
    This can lead to the authenticity of the content presented through that rendering being brought into question.
    Efforts are under way in the digital preservation community to ensure that we have to ability to lock render functionality in place indefinitely. This is being accomplished through the use of emulation tools (see the European KEEP project as an example ).
    Content creators have a role to play in mitigating this issue also. In order to enable these emulation projects to be successful content creators should consider documenting the rendering applications that are best for rendering the objects they produce. Tools to automatically identify rendering applications are also being investigated but in the short to medium term manual/semi-automated documentation would be very beneficial for the future.

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