Supreme Court Says Georgia Can’t Copyright State Code

April 27, 2020 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Supreme Court building, June 2019. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that an annotated version of Georgia’s state law code is not subject to copyright protection because it is a “government edict” and must be free for all to use.

In a 5-4 ruling, the judges rejected a copyright infringement lawsuit the state brought against a group called Public.Resources.Org, Inc., which copied and distributed the code without paying for it.

The annotations in the current Official Code of Georgia were produced by Matthew Bender & Co., Inc., a division of the LexisNexis Group, pursuant to a work-for-hire agreement with the 15-member Code Revision Commission, a state entity composed mostly of legislators.

Under the agreement LexisNexis has the exclusive right to publish the annotated code, as long as it limits the price and makes a version without annotations free online.

But Georgia claims the copyright and sued Public.Resource.Org, a non-profit that advocates for public access, for infringement when the organization tried to publish the code on its own.

Writing for the majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts cited a trio of 19th century cases.

In Wheaton v. Peters (1834), the court held that no reporter can have a copyright on the court’s opinions and that the Justices cannot confer such a right on any reporter.

In Banks v. Manchester (1888), the court held that judges could not assert copyright in “whatever work they perform in their capacity as judges” — be it “the opinion or decision, the statement of the case and the syllabus or the head note.”

Finally, in Callaghan v. Myers (1888) the court reiterated that an official reporter cannot hold a copyright interest in opinions created by judges.

The animating principle behind the government edicts doctrine is that no one can own the law.

“Because Georgia’s annotations are authored by an arm of the legislature in the course of its legislative duties, the government edicts doctrine puts them outside the reach of copyright protection,” Roberts said.

He was joined in the majority by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

But Justice Clarence Thomas worried about the impact the majority’s decision would have on the 22 other states along with the District of Columbia that rely on arrangements similar to Georgia’s to produce annotated codes.

“The majority’s rule will leave in the lurch the many states, private parties and legal researchers who relied on the previously bright-line rule,” Thomas wrote in his dissent. “Perhaps, to the detriment of all, many states will stop producing annotated codes altogether.”

Thomas argued that annotations can be copyrighted, although Congress can step in and change the law.

His dissent was joined in full by Justice Samuel Alito Jr., and in part by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a separate dissent that was also joined by Breyer.

“Beyond doubt, state laws are not copyrightable,” Ginsburg wrote. “Nor are other materials created by state legislators in the course of performing their lawmaking responsibilities, [for example], legislative committee reports, floor statements, unenacted bills.

“Not all that legislators do, however, is ineligible for copyright protection; the government edicts doctrine shields only ‘works that are (1) created by ‘judges and legislators (2) in the course of their judicial and legislative duties.’

“Because summarizing judicial decisions and commentary bearing on enacted statutes, in contrast to, for example, drafting a committee report to accompany proposed legislation, is not done in a legislator’s law-shaping capacity, I would hold the OCGA annotations copyrightable and therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit,” she concluded.

Supreme Court

Constitution Does Not Bar Issuance of State Criminal Subpoena to Sitting President
Supreme Court
Constitution Does Not Bar Issuance of State Criminal Subpoena to Sitting President
July 9, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that neither Article II of the Constitution nor the Supremacy Clause categorically preclude or require a heightened standard for the issuance of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting president. The 7-2 ruling by the high court in... Read More

Supreme Court Rules Job Discrimination Laws Don’t Protect Church-School Teachers
Employment
Supreme Court Rules Job Discrimination Laws Don’t Protect Church-School Teachers

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday banned teachers who work at church-run schools from filing discrimination lawsuits against their employers, ruling that the Constitution’s protection for religious liberty exempts church schools from state and federal anti-discrimination laws. The justices, by a 7-2 vote, shielded two... Read More

Justices Allow Limited Access to Free Birth Control Under ACA
Supreme Court
Justices Allow Limited Access to Free Birth Control Under ACA
July 8, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a Trump administration regulation that lets employers with religious objections limit women’s access to free birth control under the Affordable Care Act. The 7-2 decision could have a profound, immediate effect on as many as 126,000 women who... Read More

Chief Justice John Roberts Briefly Hospitalized in June
Supreme Court
Chief Justice John Roberts Briefly Hospitalized in June
July 8, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - Chief Justice John Roberts spent a night in the hospital last month after he fell and injured his forehead while walking for exercise near his home, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said Tuesday night. According to court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg, Roberts' injuries required sutures and... Read More

Supreme Court Upholds Cellphone Robocall Ban
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Upholds Cellphone Robocall Ban
July 6, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON— The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a 1991 law that bars robocalls to cellphones. The case, argued by telephone in May because of the coronavirus pandemic, stems from a 2015 decision by Congress to carve out an exception to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. The... Read More

Supreme Court Rules States Can Penalize Faithless Electors
Supreme Court
Supreme Court Rules States Can Penalize Faithless Electors
July 6, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that so-called faithless electors can be penalized if they renege on their pledge to vote for their state voters' choice for president. Writing for a nearly unanimous court, Justice Elena Kagan began with a summation of the electoral... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top