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Supreme Court knocks down paywall around Georgia legal materials

Maggie Lee
Exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court building
U.S. Supreme Court building. Credit: WEBN-TV/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Maggie Lee

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Georgia can’t keep people from a free version of official explanations of state law.

“Annotations” to the law aren’t protected by copyright, five justices opined on Monday.

Georgia law is published free on several web sites, but it doesn’t have those key explainers of relevant court cases or other background.

The Georgia Legislature hires a company to prepare annotations.

The contractor, part of the LexisNexis Group, does most of the work drafting annotations, to the specifications and under the review of Georgia’s Code Revision Commission, a group mainly made up of legislators. In return, Lexis gets an exclusive right to sell annotated code.

For the majority of justices, that arrangement amounts to authorship by “an arm” of the Legislature in its official duties. Therefore, they find annotations aren’t like the work of an author who writes a novel and gets copyright. The majority found that annotations are like a copyright-free work created by a judge or legislator in the course of their duties.

The four remaining dissenting justices wrote two opinions poking holes in the majority explanation, finding that judges’ and lawmakers’ products are not comparable things to each other or to annotations when it comes to copyright. They weren’t convinced that a work is public domain if it’s done a by private company working for a state legislature on material that has no force of law.

The case began more than five years ago when a California-based nonprofit used scanners and the internet to publish copies of the annotated laws of several states, including Georgia’s.

Georgia sued in 2015. And the group, Public.Resource.Org, countersued.

PRO’s founder, Carl Malamud, was quiet on Twitter after the ruling, except for a few likes, retweets and a “no comment” when asked about one of the dissenting opinions.

But he doesn’t seem to be retiring:

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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