Phew. The 11th Circuit appeals court has just overturned a lower court ruling and said that Georgia’s laws, including annotations, are not covered by copyright, and it is not infringing to post them online. This is big, and a huge win for online information activist Carl Malamud whose Public.Resource.org was the unfortunate defendant in a fight to make sure people actually understood the laws that ruled them. The details here matter, so let’s dig in:
For the past few years, we’ve been covering the fairly insane situation down in Georgia, where they insist that the state’s annotated laws are covered by copyright. This is not quite the same thing as saying the laws themselves are covered by copyright. Everyone here seems to recognize that Georgia’s laws are not covered by copyright. But here’s where the problem comes in. The state of Georgia contracts out with a private company, LexisNexis, to “annotate” the law basically giving more context, and discussing the case law interpretations of the official code. The deal with the state is that LexisNexis then transfers whatever copyright it gets from the creation of the annotations back to the state. Finally, the only “official” version of Georgia’s state laws is in the “annotated” version. If you want to look up the official law of Georgia you are sent to the “Official Code of Georgia Annotated” (OCGA), and it’s hosted by LexisNexis, and it has all sorts of restrictive terms of service on top of it. Indeed, every new law in Georgia literally says that it will amend “the Official Code of Georgia Annotated,” which certainly suggests that the OCGA — all of it — is the law in Georgia. And the state insisted that part of the law was covered by copyright.
Malamud found this obviously troubling, believing that the law must be freely accessible to anyone in order to be valid. The state of Georgia threatened him and then sued him claiming that reposting the OCGA in a more accessible fashion was copyright infringement. The district court not only found that the annotations (even if part of the official law) could be covered by copyright but further that it was not fair use for Malamud to post them online. This was a horrifying decision.
And, it’s also no longer a valid one.
The appeals court has put together a thorough ruling rebuking the lower court’s analysis, and noting that the OCGA is not subject to copyright at all. The court admits the annotations by a private company make this more complicated than the general question of whether or not laws are covered by copyright, but notes that since this is so closely tied to the law, and directed by state officials, it seems clear that the annotations cannot be covered by copyright:
We really need to reign in the IP zealots.
They have devolved into parasites.