The Secretary of State's office is putting out the warning that the State of Maine law makes it illegal for people to sell local, county and state documents -- such as old maps, minutes of town meetings and copies of municipal ordinances. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap says public documents belong to the public, not private individuals.
State Archivist Jim Henderson says many public documents have fallen into private hands over time, often because many town officials in Maine used to work from their homes. Records from a century ago could end up in the attic of a relative instead of a public building, and once the documents are unearthed, people sometimes try to sell them.
Policing the sales is a challenge. The archivist's office finds out about them through questions from the public or tips about Internet sales. Every few months, Henderson hears about items being listed on eBay, the Internet's largest auction site. The state does not have the staff or money to do more, and nobody monitors Web sites or goes out looking for public records that may be missing.
The sale of public documents is a criminal act under Maine state law, punishable by up to a year in jail and a two-thousand-dollar fine. Unfortunately, similar laws have not been enacted in other states. Private documents like company records or family histories and copies of public records do not come under the law.
Hani Durzy, a spokesman for eBay, said the company is willing to work with states but that the laws are not uniform from state to state. He said eBay does not want to ban items that are legal to buy and sell in some states.