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A federal appeals court has ruled that Georgia cannot copyright the state’s laws or the “annotations” that explain the meaning of the laws, because the public owns them.

That means, the court found, the state cannot prevent someone from making copies of the laws available to the public.

“The people are the owners of these works, meaning that the works are intrinsically public domain material and, therefore, uncopyrightable,” the ruling said.

The state sued a private company for copyright infringement, claiming the state owned the copyright and controls distribution of the text of the laws.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, which long has advocated for public access to court documents, said governments must make statutes, regulations, adjudications and other documents freely available.

The case developed when open records activist Carl Malamud bought a hard copy of the laws for $1,207.02.

He scanned a copy of the Official Georgia Code Annotated and put them on USB drives. He sent the drives to state officials.

State lawmakers were enraged and responded with accusations of “unlawful copying,” asserting his action “infringes on the exclusive copyright of the state of Georgia.”

“Accordingly, you are hereby notified to CEASE AND DESIST ALL COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT,” the state told him.

Malamud also was ordered to destroy his files and remove the laws from his website.

The state apparently believed that the text of the laws was available to the public, but the annotations were copyrighted and owned by the state.

The annotations includes such things as judicial decisions related to specific issues.

Malamud responded that since the annotations have been adopted as part of the law, they are official law, and therefore must be available to the public.

The state’s Code Revision Commission eventually sued, and it was the loser in the 11th Circuit ruling. The appeals court reversed a decision from U.S. District Judge Richard Story, who had sided with the state.

The appeals court wrote: “From the earliest days of the Republic, under federal copyright law, copyright interests have vested in the author of the work. Authorship, therefore, is central to many questions that arise … This case is no exception. In most states the ‘official’ code is comprised of statutory text alone, and all agree that a state’s codification cannot be copyrighted because the authorship is ultimately attributable to the people.

“Conversely, all agree that annotations created by a private party generally can be copyrighted because the annotations are an original work created by a private publisher.

“But the annotations in the [Georgia case] are not exactly like either of these two types of works. Rather, they fall somewhere in between – their legal effect and ultimate authorship more indeterminate.”

The court found that the state code, which merges the statutes and the annotations, is public domain because they are “sufficiently law-like so as to be properly regarded as a sovereign work.”

“We conclude that the people are the ultimate authors of the annotations,” so they are “inherently public domain material and therefore uncopyrightable.”

The opinion continued: “Having been merged by the General Assembly with the statutory text into a single, unified edict, stamped with the state’s imprimatur, and created and embraced by the same body that wrote the text that they explicate, the annotations have been suffused with powerful indicia of legal significance that is impossible to ignore.”

The state had specified that the annotations be merged with the text of the law, published by the state and known as the “Official Code of Georgia Annotated.”

The opinion said the annotations “are not merely expositions on the meaning of statutes, but rather are official comments authored by the same body that also wrote the statutes.”

WND also reported the state of California considered a law that would copyright everything produced by the state, from films of city council meetings to legislation.

However, the plan later was dropped.

Critics said at the time it was “never made clear why the state needed sweeping new copyright and trademark powers and new limitations on open government.”

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