We won one!
On April 27, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a narrow 5-4 victory to justice in the case of Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc.
Earlier this year, we briefly discussed the case in a post titled The Crackheads and Extortionists Who Sell State Laws. The article likened state legislatures to crackheads who keep coming to their citizens for another hit, and then another. We wrote
Georgia Charges Citizens $404 Per Year To Read Their Own Laws. It’s bad enough that jury instructions aren’t free, but Georgia is charging hundreds of dollars for annotated codes that help people understand the law in Georgia. To protect its relationship with its pusher, LexisNexis, Georgia has gone all the way to the US Supreme Court.
In 2015, Georgia sued watchdog group Public.Resource.Org for copyright infringement after it refused to pull the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) from its free website. The case was argued before the US Supreme Court on December 2, 2019.
The Supreme Court has made its decision, with a surprising mix of bedfellows. (Checkout the supporters and dissenters). The court ruled that the government edicts doctrine barred Georgia from copyrighting its laws. Under this doctrine, a person, such as a reporter, can hold a copyright to information he created because he has no authority to speak with the force of law. Judges and other government bodies, like a legislator, on the other hand, cannot assert a copyright for works they produce in their capacity as judges or legislators.
That’s the law.
More about Georgia. The Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) is a compilation of the Georgia statutes (laws) with full annotations from the Georgia Code Commission. The State of Georgia argued that, since OCGA is a compilation of annotations, it should have the copyright protection enjoyed by other annotations. See the Copyright Act.
The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the OCGA annotations are not wholly like other annotations because their author qualifies as a legislator. The sole “author” being the Georgia Code Commission, an arm of the Georgia Legislature. The Commission developed the annotations in its legislative capacity. The Court explains
If Georgia were correct, then unless a State took the affirmative step of transferring its copyrights to the public domain, all of its judges’ and legislators’ non-binding legal works would be copyrighted. And citizens, attorneys, nonprofits, and private research companies would have to cease all copying, distribution, and display of those works or risk severe and potentially criminal penalties.
The Court ruled the annotations to be ineligible for copyright protection because “no one can own the law”.
To many, this may seem like a small victory, but for people representing themselves in court, it’s a huge win. Now, shelling out hundreds of dollars just to read the law might be removed from the list of stumbling blocks for self-represented litigants. Indeed, it is hoped that the ruling has a chilling effect on officials in other states, cities, and counties who were considering slapping a price tag on their laws.
In this case, the Supreme Court did the right thing. It curtailed at least some of the crackhead behavior by government entities who stumble their way back to their citizens again and again for another hit.
We can breath a sigh of relief for now. On to the next battle.
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