The Law: Who Owns the Tapes?

Do former Presidents and other federal officials own the records they generated during their tours of public service? The answer is yes if tradition is the sole arbiter. Ever since George Washington carted home to Mount Vernon trunkloads of presidential papers, his successors and their executors have tightly controlled White House documents. The controversial agreement between representatives of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, giving Nixon shared control over his material and allowing him to destroy the records after five years, reaffirms past practice.

The Nixon case has raised the argument over that traditional...