The Code Revision Commission (the “Commission”), an arm of the State of Georgia’s General Assembly, is mandated to ensure publication of the statutes adopted by the General Assembly. It does so by contracting with the LexisNexis Group (“Lexis”) to maintain, publish, and distribute the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (“OCGA”), an annotated compilation of Georgia’s statutes. Following guidelines provided by the Commission, Lexis prepares and sells OCGA, which includes the statutory text of Georgia’s laws and annotations (such as summaries of judicial decisions interpreting or applying particular statutes). Lexis also makes unannotated versions of the statutes available online.
Public.Resource.Org (“PRO”) is a non-profit organization that promotes access to government records and primary legal materials. PRO makes government documents available online, including the official codes and other rules, regulations, and standards legally adopted by federal, state, and local authorities, giving the public free access to these documents. PRO purchased printed copies of the OCGA, digitized its content, and posted copies online through its own website.
Georgia filed suit against PRO claiming copyright infringement. For a brief history of the litigation, see our earlier post on the case.
Supreme Court’s Decision
The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Georgia can claim copyrights over the OCGA annotations or if it is prevented from doing so because the annotations are an “edict of government.” Under 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.
Reviewing earlier cases involving the government edicts doctrine, the Court was guided by an animating principle that “no one can own the law.” The majority opinion found that under the government edicts doctrine, legislators may not be considered the authors of the works they produce in the course of their official duties as legislators. The Court held that the rule applies regardless of whether a given material carries the force of law, and that it applies to the annotations in OCGA because they are authored by an arm of the legislature in the course of its official duties.
As a result, the Court affirmed the 11th Circuit’s decision that the annotations in Georgia’s Official Code are ineligible for copyright protection and finding in favor of PRO.