Reprinting Georgia legal code violates copyright law, US judge rules

Reprinting Georgia legal code violates copyright law, US judge rules
A federal judge has ruled against a website that published Georgia’s state laws and annotations online, finding that the legal code is entitled to copyright protection.

Last Thursday, US District Judge Richard Story ruled that annotations to Georgia’s legal code are protected under copyright laws and ordered the website that published them for free to take them down. 

The case began in 2015, when Georgia sued the website, Public.Resouce.org for posting free copies of the Official Georgia Code Annotated (OCGA) on their site. Georgia argued that publishing the state’s laws amounted to a “form of ‘terrorism’”

Carl Malamud, the president of the nonprofit website Public Resource, has run the site for years with the goal of making government information more available.  

The complaint argues that making the annotations publically available would mean “the State of Georgia will be required to either stop publishing the annotations altogether or pay for development of the annotations using state tax dollars.

Malamud argued that the annotated version is actually the official copy of Georgia's laws, so it is the copy that needs to be made publically available. 

"The Official Code of Georgia Annotated, every component of it, is the official law,” Malamud wrote. “Our publication of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated should be encouraged, not threatened.

On Thursday, Story agreed with Malamud that the OCGA is the official code. However, he ruled the annotations are still entitled to copyright protections.

The Court acknowledges that this is an unusual case because most official codes are not annotated and most annotated codes are not official. The annotations here are nonetheless entitled to copyright protection,” Story wrote.

In 2013, Malamud scanned all 186 volumes and supplements of the OCGA and posted copies on the website. He also sent flash drives with copies of the laws to Georgia speaker of the House, David Ralston, and other lawmakers, lawyers and policymakers.

Accompanying the flash drives, Malamud wrote a letter stating his intention to make the laws available so that “public servants, members of the bar, citizens, and members of the business community have ready access to the laws that govern them.

In response, the chairman of Georgia's Code Revision Commission, Josh McKoon, threatened to sue Malamud if he did not cease and desist, destroy his files, and remove the laws from his website in 10 days.

The judge found that Malamud’s copyright infringement was not based on publishing the laws, but the annotations, case summaries, legislative history and other notations.

The state notes that the text of the OCGA is available to the public on the state’s website at www.legis.ga.gov.

After the ruling, the UCGA was removed from the Public Resource website. The link to the state's constitution has been replaced with a notification that reads, “Your access to this document, which is a law of the United States of America, has been temporarily disabled while we fight for your right to read and speak the laws by which we choose to govern ourselves as a democratic society.

The page provides a link to apply for a license for the OCGA, however, it costs $1,207.02, according to a receipt obtained by Malamud. 

"The Official Code of Georgia Annotated is an edict of government and contains the definitive statement of the law as published by the State of Georgia," Malamud told Ars Technica. "We are appealing."