Last week, we wrote about the fact that the State of Georgia is suing Carl Malamud
for posting PDFs of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, and sending them around. I've been discussing this with a number of lawyers and other experts over the weekend and have to say that I made a significant error in the original post, which I apologize for. I said that courts frequently rely on the annotations of the law, thus effectively making them a part of the law. This was wrong and it was poor reporting on my part based on incomplete understanding of the situation. Having discussed this with multiple people and checked into it further myself, I really regret the error and will be adding a link to this story as soon as it is published. I was told otherwise originally, but that's no excuse. I should have checked it out and I did not.
The situation is, admittedly, more complicated. I still believe that the State of Georgia is incorrect both legally and morally in deciding to go down this path, but it is at least slightly more nuanced than the original article suggested, so let's dig in and explore the thinking. The state of Georgia hired LexisNexis to create these annotations, and LexisNexis then assigns the copyright that it receives on those annotations over to the state of Georgia. Part of the deal between Georgia and LexisNexis is that LexisNexis does the work and the state gets the copyright, but then LexisNexis gets to host the "official" copies of the laws of the state, while selling that annotated version (in both digital and paper versions). The state argues that this arrangement is actually more beneficial to consumers, because rather than relying on taxpayer funds to do this, LexisNexis gets to recoup the costs in the form of customer fees.
The annotations include things such as the names and a brief paragraph summary of relevant caselaw concerning the specific law being annotated. So, the first question is can this be covered by copyright? Most likely the answer is yes, if a limited kind of copyright. There is some creative choice in selecting what to cover and how to cover it, though significant parts of it are factual (names of cases and whatnot). As some pointed out, LexisNexis competitor WestLaw also offers its own annotated code of the state and sells it itself, and pretty much everyone is comfortable with the copyright there.
So, what's different here? Well, for one, part of the deal with LexisNexis is that after writing the work, the company transfers the copyright to the state itself. Some have pointed to the fact that under federal copyright law the federal government cannot get copyright on works of its own creation, but that does not really apply here in two separate ways. First, there's some dispute over whether or not those same rules apply to state governments as well -- with many arguing that without it being explicit, states can copyright their own creative works. The second issue, though, is that even under federal copyright law, if a third party/contractor creates the work and then assigns the copyright to the government, then even the federal government can keep and use that copyright. And, that's clearly the situation here.