June 24, 2019 / 4:41 PM / a year ago

U.S. high court to rule on scope of copyright for legal codes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a bid by Georgia lawmakers to win federal copyright protection for an annotated version of the state’s legal code and to decide whether state and local governments can sue people who publish such texts without permission, much like novels or films.

FILE PHOTO: People are pictured on the stairs outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 17, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

The justices took up an appeal by Georgia’s legislature of a lower court decision holding that an annotated compilation of the state’s statutes published annually is “intrinsically public domain material” that cannot be copyrighted.

That decision by the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a victory for Carl Malamud, a California-based advocate for open access to legal documents who publishes these texts at Public.Resource.Org. Georgia holds the copyright on the annotated text, but it is developed largely by LexisNexis, a RELX PLC subsidiary, through a contract with the state.

It is well-settled law in the United States that statutes and court decisions are part of the public domain and can be freely published. But Georgia’s legislature has claimed copyright protection for the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, a document that includes both statutes and lengthy annotations analyzing them.

Josh Johnson, a lawyer for Georgia, said in a statement that the state Georgia is pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal. Johnson said the 11th Circuit ruling “threatens to upend Georgia’s longstanding arrangement for creating and distributing annotations useful to guide legal research, while ensuring that the state’s laws are widely distributed and easily accessible - free of charge.”

Malamud declined to comment.

The annotations at the center of the case lack the legal force of statutes, but have authoritative weight in explaining the meaning and effect of a law.

The dispute dates to 2013, when Malamud’s organization paid about $1,200 to purchase the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, scanned each page, and put the contents on his website. Malamud also distributed copies on thumb drives to government employees and elected officials.

The state sued Public.Resource.Org for copyright infringement in 2015, requesting a court order blocking his activities.

A trial court judge sided with Georgia’s legislature, but the 11th Circuit reversed that ruling and cleared Malamud of copyright infringement in 2018. The court said the annotated code was “created by Georgia’s legislators in the exercise of their legislative authority,” and therefore “the people are the ultimate authors of the annotations.”

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham

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