Supreme Court Rulings Over Copyright

Not every courtroom case will make it to the Supreme Court — and, in fact, whether or not to hear a case at all is something determined by the justices who sit there, all of whom serve for life. That means they are extremely picky over which cases they rule upon. The arguments for or against a particular case must be seemingly flawless, even though only one side can win. That’s one reason why these cases almost always result in split decisions.

Supreme court cases become even trickier when they wade into the swamp that is copyright infringement law. There was a recent ruling regarding 19th century doctrine in order to determine copyright boundaries when an “annotated” state code is potentially infringed upon. 

A legal scuffle arose when the state of Georgia contracted a LexisNexis subsidiary (Matthew Bender & Co.) to help publish and distribute its own state codes. The contract outlined that LexisNexis itself was responsible for costs related to those tasks. But if that weren’t complicated enough, LexisNexis was provided with a license to sell that code on its own — even though that state of Georgia itself has copyright protections for the code, the sales of which are divided between the state and LexisNexis.

The problem lies not in the sales of the state codes, but in their free dissemination at libraries, schools, and colleges. Public.Resource.Org purchased the documents to post online. Georgia asked that they be removed from the website, but Public Resource said no. The first stage of the lawsuit began when the state of Georgia sued Public Resource for copyright infringement.

From there, rulings were made and reversed in almost cyclical fashion.

A federal judge said the annotations were indeed copyrighted. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said they were not (although it’s worth mentioning that the 11th Circuit relied on an old 19th century doctrine to make the case).

The Supreme Court took on the case and ruled 5-4 that people and organizations, including state and federal governments themselves, do not “own” the law, regardless of which government entities wrote the codes in the first place.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Under the government edicts doctrine, judges — and we now confirm, legislators — may not be considered the ‘authors’ of the works they produce in the course of their official duties as judges and legislators. That rule applies regardless of whether a given material carries the force of law. And it applies to the annotations here because they are authored by an arm of the legislature in the course of its official duties.”


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