For The Record

Supreme Court rules Georgia can’t copyright annotated state laws

By: - April 27, 2020 9:00 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday ruled Thursday the Trump administration can’t carry out its plan to end the the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has allowed 800,000 young people and 21,000 Georgians to remain in the U.S. Joe Ravi/ Wikimedia Commons

This post was updated at 1 p.m. April 28 to correct the name of Dorsey and Whitney attorney Jeffrey Cadwell.

A divided U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision Monday that Georgia can no longer copyright an annotated version of the state code, which it previously sold for a profit.

Georgia claimed Public.Resource.Org initiated the case that rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, after the state claimed the nonprofit violated copyright law by making the state’s annotated code free to the public on its website.

The court’s ruling dismissed the state’s claim that annotations to the Georgia code can be copyrighted.

“Over a century ago, we recognized a limitation on copyright protection for certain government work product, rooted in the Copyright Act’s ‘authorship’ requirement,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion for the 5-4 majority. “Under what has been dubbed the government edicts doctrine, officials empowered to speak with the force of law cannot be the authors of—and therefore cannot copyright—the works they create in the course of their official duties.”

Dissenting were Georgia-native Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

Public Resource attorneys argued that the annotations should be free for public consumption since they are part of legal documents produced by people working for taxpayers. Georgia retained the private company LEXIS/NEXIS to prepare the annotated version of the state code book, which charged more than $400 for a hard copy.

Twenty other states copyright at least some of their code. The ruling still gives some leeway depending on whether lawmakers authorize the annotations or a private party does, said attorney Jeffrey Cadwell, a partner at Minneapolis-based Dorsey & Whitney, who specializes in trademark and copyright laws.

“This is a victory for those who believe state statutes and their annotations should be free for all” he said. “It also preserves the ability of private parties, such as Lexis, to continue to develop annotated codes on their own for which they can claim protection and monetize.”

The ruling does not mean that all government works are not subject to copyrights. For instance, products created by government workers at public universities, libraries and other non-lawmakers do have some copyright protections, Cadwell said.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.