August 4, 2021

“Supreme Court Rules States Can’t Copyright Annotated Laws”

From the Courthouse News Service:

Extending a 19th century doctrine of copyright law to legal materials created by legislatures, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled annotated versions of state codes cannot be copyrighted.

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Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a five-justice majority of the Supreme Court held the principle “that no one can own the law” applies equally to legal materials that judges create and legal materials that legislatures make.

“Under the government edicts doctrine, judges — and we now confirm, legislators — may not be considered the ‘authors’ of the works they produce in the course of their official duties as judges and legislators,” Roberts wrote. “That rule applies regardless of whether a given material carries the force of law. And it applies to the annotations here because they are authored by an arm of the legislature in the course of its official duties.”

Read the Complete Article (approx. 860 words)

From the AP:

The case before the justices was a dispute between Georgia and Public.Resource.Org Inc. The nonprofit is run by Carl Malamud, an internet public domain advocate who argues for free access to legally obtained files.

The nonprofit distributed and made available online copies of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. The state sued in July 2015, arguing the annotations include analysis and guidance added by a third-party publisher and are protected by copyright.

Read the Complete Article

From The New York Times

Since a commission created by the State Legislature was the author of the annotations for purposes of the copyright law, the annotations could not be copyrighted, Chief Justice Roberts wrote. He added that the annotations often offered important guidance. “Imagine a Georgia citizen interested in learning his legal rights and duties,” the chief justice wrote. “If he reads the economy-class version of the Georgia Code available online, he will see laws requiring political candidates to pay hefty qualification fees (with no indigency exception), criminalizing broad categories of consensual sexual conduct and exempting certain key evidence in criminal trials from standard evidentiary limitations — with no hint that important aspects of those laws have been held unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court.”

“Imagine a Georgia citizen interested in learning his legal rights and duties,” the chief justice wrote. “If he reads the economy-class version of the Georgia Code available online, he will see laws requiring political candidates to pay hefty qualification fees (with no indigency exception), criminalizing broad categories of consensual sexual conduct and exempting certain key evidence in criminal trials from standard evidentiary limitations — with no hint that important aspects of those laws have been held unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court.”

“Meanwhile,” he wrote, “first-class readers with access to the annotations will be assured that these laws are, in crucial respects, unenforceable relics that the Legislature has not bothered to narrow or repeal.”

Read the Complete Article

Direct to Full Text of Supreme Court Opinion

Statement from Public Knowledge: “Supreme Court Reaffirms Public’s Right to Access State Laws”

Background

Supreme Court of the United States Will Consider Whether Publishers Can Copyright Annotated State Codes, Oral Arguments Set For December 2nd (November 27, 2019)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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