Eleventh Circuit Decision: OCGA Copyright Ruling

OCGA Copyright Ruling
Categories: Criminal Law

Court Decision on Copyright of Georgia’s Legal State Code

On October nineteenth, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a significant decision in Code Update Commission v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc. This ruling addressed a copyright infringement case involving a commented version of Georgia’s legal state code. The court applied U.S. Supreme Court case law from the nineteenth century, concluding that no valid copyright interest can be asserted in any part of the annotated state code.

Background of the Case

In July 2015, the Code Revision Commission, established by the Georgia General Assembly in 1977, filed a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief against Public.Resource.Org (Pro), a non-profit organization aiming to enhance public access to government materials. The dispute centered on Pro’s publication of all 186 volumes of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) online for free. Pro argued that Georgia lacked an enforceable copyright on the OCGA, despite a publishing agreement between LexisNexis (the OCGA publisher) and Georgia, which held the copyright to the annotations.

The Northern Georgia court initially granted a permanent injunction against Pro, asserting that the annotations lacked the force of law and were not in the public domain.

Key Legal Arguments

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit focused on the validity of Georgia’s copyright in the OCGA. Emphasizing the significance of “creation” in the context of government statements’ copyrightability, the court referenced three Supreme Court cases, with the latest dating back to 1888.

  1. Wheaton v. Peters (1834): The Supreme Court held that a journalist cannot claim copyright in written opinions produced by the Court.
  2. Banks v. Manchester (1888): The Court ruled that decisions issued by state supreme courts are not copyrightable, as a judge’s interpretation of the law is available for public dissemination.
  3. Callaghan v. Myers (1888): The Court recognized a copyright claim in reports containing opinions from a state supreme court, granted the publisher had acquired exclusive interest from a state official.

Congressional Intent and Public Policy

The Eleventh Circuit highlighted Congress’s incorporation of Banks’ principles into the 1909 Copyright Act, prohibiting copyright in the original text of works in the public domain. Additionally, a 1961 Copyright Office report extended this prohibition to state government laws, judicial decisions, and similar documents.

Court’s Analysis and Conclusion

The court evaluated the OCGA and determined that, while the annotations lacked the force of law, they were an integral part of Georgia’s legal framework. The Georgia General Assembly drove the creation of annotations, drafted by LexisNexis according to detailed instructions in the publishing agreement. This legislative involvement elevated the annotations to a work representing an exercise of sovereign authority, aligning with U.S. public policy considering such works as public domain.

In conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit held that the OCGA is not copyrightable, emphasizing the close connection between the process of creating annotations and the legislative process itself. This decision reinforces the public nature of government documents and their significance to legal interpretation, a stance crucially supported by the perspectives of Top Intellectual Property Attorneys who often navigate the intricate intersections of law and creative works.