Georgia v. Public Resource: Much Ado About Very Little

I was on the fence with regard to commenting on Georgia v. Public Resource. Its details are arcane, rather dull, and, despite rising to the level of a Supreme Court decision, is generally inapplicable to copyright law. In essence, the Court succeeded in commenting on a matter of contract law because the upshot of this will be that States seeking to hold copyrights in the kind of works at issue in this case will simply amend their relationships with the private third parties that produce such works. I think my biggest resistance to this story was summarizing the facts because holy moly are they boring! So, here they are, cut and pasted from the SCOTUS Syllabus:

The Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) includes the text of every Georgia statute currently in force, as well as a set of non-binding annotations. The annotations typically include summaries of pertinent opinions of the state attorney general, and a list of related law review articles and other reference materials.  The annotations were produced by Matthew Bender & Co., Inc. a division of LexisNexis Group, pursuant to a work-for-hire agreement with the Code Revision Commission, a state entity composed mostly of legislators.  

Respondent Public.Resource.Org (PRO), a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating public access to government records, posted the OCGA online and distributed copies to various organizations and Georgia officials. The Commission sued for copyright infringement; PRO argued that the entire OCGA, including the annotations, fell in the public domain. The District Court held that the annotations were eligible for copyright protection. The Eleventh Circuit reversed.

So, to clear up one possible confusion about this case, what was NOT at issue, despite some murmuring you may get from the blogosphere, was any question that the law can be copyrighted. It cannot. That question was generally settled in the very first copyright case considered by the United States Supreme Court in 1834 known as Wheaton v. Peters. At issue here were those annotations, the descriptive summaries of either case law or statutes; and there is no controversy as to whether annotations in general can be the subject of copyright. They can. So, what was the big whoop in Georgia v. Public Resource?

The not-so-big whoop came down to the majority’s opinion, written by Justice Roberts, about the relationship between Georgia’s Code Revision Commission and the private party, Matthew Bender, hired to produce the annotations. “Under the agreement, Lexis drafts the annotations under the supervision of the Commission, which specifies what the annotations must include in exacting detail. The agreement also states that any copyright in the OCGA vests in the State of Georgia, acting through the Commission.”

What that boils down to is that because Lexis was contracted under a Work Made For Hire (WMFH) agreement, the Commission is the “author,” and is, therefore, barred by this decision from owning copyright on the grounds that the Commission is acting in its official capacity as an extension of the state legislature. At least that’s what the majority held, albeit after a longwinded tour through the nineteenth century meaning of “author” that I frankly cannot be bothered to summarize here because it hardly matters.

Suffice to say the Georgia decision changes nothing in the longstanding doctrine that works written by judges and legislators, as part of their official duties, may not be copyrighted. But if you read the mercifully crisp dissent written by Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Breyer, the distinctions she describes about annotations makes one thing abundantly clear—they are optional. “Annotations aid the legal researcher, and that aid is enhanced when annotations are printed beneath or alongside the relevant statutory text,” Justice Ginsburg writes. “But the placement of annotations in the OCGA does not alter their auxiliary, nonlegislative character.”

States have to make their statutes and court opinions freely available to the public, but they are not obligated to hire a company like Matthew Bender to create annotations that serve as a convenience to the reader. Somebody has to get paid to do the annotating work, and the State’s copyright in the OCGA was just one way to skin that particular cat.

One possible outcome of this decision could be that some states get out of the “official” annotation business, leaving a company like Lexis to still do the work but also own the copyrights. Or the states could simply restructure the way they work with third parties, like dropping the approval process and/or revising the contracts. Or they could just stop producing annotations altogether. So, all in all, much ado about nothing for the Supreme Court, but perhaps a nice respite from larger storms brewing.

Still, Mike Masnick at Techdirt seemed to feel there was a lot to say about this case, presumably because he does present it in his post as a matter in which the state was “locking up its laws under copyright.” That would be a big deal if it were true, but the error explains why Masnick characterizes Justice Ginsburg’s dissent as exemplary of what he calls her “copyright maximalism.” I still maintain, as I wrote years ago, that I have no idea what a copyright maximalist is, but if RBG is one, sign me up. Because just maybe there is a correlation between Justice Ginsburg’s notorious support for authors’ rights and her no-bullshit distillation of this nothing of a case.

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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