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FMG Law Blog Line

United States Supreme Court to Decide Whether Georgia Law can be Copyrighted

Posted on: July 15th, 2019

By: Jason Kamp

The United States Supreme Court recently agreed to decide whether the annotations contained in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA.) can be copyrighted by the state of Georgia, granting certiorari in State of Georgia, et al. v. Public.Resource.org, Inc., Case No. 18-1150 (S. Ct. June 24, 2019).

As explained by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, “In most states the ‘official’ code is comprised of statutory text alone, and all agree that a state’s codification cannot be copyrighted because the authorship is ultimately attributable to the People. Conversely, all agree that annotations created by a private party generally can be copyrighted because the annotations are an original work created by a private publisher. But the annotations in the OCGA are not exactly like either of these two types of works. Rather, they fall somewhere in between — their legal effect and ultimate authorship more indeterminate.” State of Georgia, et al. v. Public.Resource.org, Inc., 906 F.3d 1229, 1232 (11th Cir. 2018).

Unlike most official state codes, Georgia’s official code is annotated with non-statutory text.  This text includes summaries of judicial decisions, editor’s notes, research references, notes on law review articles, summaries of Attorney General opinions and other materials.  “The Code itself makes clear that these annotations are a part of the official Code, stating that the statutory portions of the Code ‘shall be merged with annotations… and [are] published by authority of the state …and when so published [are to] be known and may be cited as the ‘Official Code of Georgia Annotated.’ O.C.G.A. § 1-1-1.”  Id. at 1233.

The annotations are developed by a private party, LexisNexis, according to a contract with the State of Georgia. This contract specifies the type of annotations that appear with the statutory text and requires that LexisNexis present the content in a specific manner.  A state commission supervises the work LexisNexus performs and holds final editorial control. The Georgia legislature then adopts the annotations as their own, merging them with the statutory text in a process similar to passing the underlying laws. The State of Georgia holds the copyrights to the annotations LexisNexus creates.

Litigation over the copyrighted annotations began when a non-profit organization purchased and scanned all 186 printed volumes of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated and posted them to its free website.  The state sued and won in the district court.  Late last year the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding Georgia’s official code annotations are sufficiently “law-like” to be considered a work created by the state and outside the realm of copyrightable material.

The United State Supreme Court does not grant cert to affirm a lower court’s decision nearly as often as it does to reverse.  However, this case resides at the tension point between two American values: equal access to democratic institutions and private property rights.  Perhaps the Court merely wants to weigh in.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Jason Kamp at [email protected].

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