Georgia Uses Copyright to Keep State Law Code Inaccessible

Copyright should not prevent taxpayers from learning the laws and the meaning of those laws.

Law is supposed to be public. It informs members of society what actions will be punished and what actions will not be punished. People should be able to know what the laws are.

Of course, with all the laws being spat out by the state and federal governments every day, that is probably not possible unless you have a photographic memory. But one could at least have the laws freely available through the technology of the internet so that people can easily find and learn about relevant laws.

Since the NSA has operated on a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act, we all have experienced the anti-American effect of secret laws and secret court decisions.

But the NSA isn’t the only group that is in favor of keeping the law obscure. The state of Georgia is using copyright law to sue Carl Malamud for publishing the Georgia State Law Code on his website.

Thus, we read in the L.A. Times:

The state’s lawsuit, filed last week in Atlanta federal court, accuses Malamud of piracy — and worse, of “a form of ‘terrorism.'” His offense: Through his website, public.resource.org, he provides members of the public access to a searchable and downloadable scan of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated — that is, the entire body of state law. The state wants a court order forcing Malamud to stop.

Georgia and Malamud have been waging this battle for a couple of years, or ever since Malamud sent thumb drives bearing the scans to the speaker of the state House of Representatives in 2013. A cease-and-desist order, which Malamud rebuffed, came virtually by return mail. 

This isn’t the first such battle Malamud has waged. For roughly two decades he’s been working to make public laws, codes and court documents, well, public. At almost every turn he’s been fought by government agencies that prefer to extract a fee from taxpayers for access, even though, as Malamud points out, the public pays for the work in the first place, via taxes.

What is especially troubling is how hard Malamud has needed to work to liberate these law codes from some states. He won a battle with Oregon but Georgia is still fighting him. The state is claiming that the annotations are copyright protected. But those annotations were created at taxpayer expense by the Georgia Code Revision Commission. The copyright is held by the state of Georgia itself, which ought to be subject to taxpayers.

We are told that the annotations “include ‘synopses of cases’ interpreting the law, ‘summaries of Opinions of the Attorney General of Georgia’ and other summaries.”

Obviously, those are important to understanding the law. We have an open source movement in this country. It seems like we need an open law movement as well, even more urgently.