Georgia State Law professors Charlotte Alexander and Anne Tucker co-authored an amicus brief filed in the Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org Inc. Supreme Court case. In the brief, they urged the court to keep legal codes with their corresponding annotations available to the public.
It has long been held that the law is not copyrightable, however, the State of Georgia argued that annotations that accompany legal statutes are subject to intellectual property protection. Generally, with state statutes, there is the official copy, but then there are notes that go along with statutes that includes citations to court opinions, explanatory notes on interpretation, how interpretation has changed, etc.
The State of Georgia contracts with LexisNexis to compile and publish the annotations, and in turn LexisNexis charges users for access to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. However, Public Resource.Org scanned in those official documents and offers public access for free. The state claimed this was a violation of copyright law.
“Georgia was saying we’ve compiled these annotations and that act is sufficient for authorship,” Tucker said. “Annotations, however, interpret and contextualize the law, which are necessary to understand it, and thus become a part of it. The law belongs to the people, not a single author.”
Alexander and Tucker teach courses and conduct research through the College of Law Legal Analytics & Innovation Initiative and the Legal Analytics Lab, which is a collaboration with the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. In the lab, they teach students how to use computers to analyze large amounts of legal text in order to predict case outcomes, identify patterns and possibly address biases in rulings. Free access to statutes with full annotations is essential to doing the work.
The Supreme Court handed down the 5-4 decision in favor of PublicResource.org on April 27, 2020. Alexander and Tucker co-wrote the amicus brief with Michael A. Livermore, a law professor at the University of Virginia. In the brief they cited three reasons why the codes should not receive copyright protection: (1) Extending copyright protection to official annotations of state statutes will inhibit legal scholarship, (2) Computational legal scholarship builds on a long tradition of scholarly synthesis of legal materials that courts have found useful and (3) Official annotations such as Georgia’s are created by state action, and as such are government edicts rather than legal commentary.
Ultimately, 36 scholars who study the law using computational methodologies and whose research requires access to digital versions of legal texts, co-signed the brief. Alexander and Tucker see the Supreme Court ruling as a win for the American people.
“The broader thing we were concerned about was a slippery slope concern,” Alexander said. “Once the government is allowed to put part of legal material behind a paywall, what’s the next thing that goes behind a paywall? We end up with access to the law for a privileged few who can pay for LexisNexis or Westlaw. That’s undemocratic.”
Written by Kelundra Smith