Supreme Court Rules That Annotations in Official Law Codes Are in Public Domain

Laws and court decisions have always been in the public domain—they must be freely available to everyone. This is because the government officials (legislators and judges) have created them.

State laws are published in collections (called "codes") that usually contain not just the laws themselves, but various types of explanatory materials known as annotations. These include legislative history (such as bill amendments and votes), lists of helpful reference materials (such as law review articles), and summaries of legal opinions interpreting the state laws.

The State of Georgia claimed that it owned the copyright to the annotations contained in its official state legal codes. The annotations were produced on behalf of the state legislature by a private legal publisher through a work-for-hire agreement. An organization called PublicResource.org published the Georgia codes online, including the annotations, without obtaining the state’s permission. Georgia sued the organization for copyright infringement. But now, in a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the state has lost its lawsuit.

As the Supreme Court noted, it has long held that there can be no copyright protection for any works that judges and legislators create in the course of their judicial and legislative duties—including materials like floor statements, committee reports, and proposed bills. In this case, the legislative commission that created the annotations for the official Georgia code (through its work-for-hire agreement) did so as part of its legislative duties. Thus, the annotations weren’t eligible for copyright protection. (Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc., 140 S.Ct. 1498 (April 27, 2020).)

At least 22 states claim copyright in annotations included in their official codes. These copyright claims are now invalid. However, the Supreme Court’s decision did not invalidate copyright claims in annotations included in unofficial codes—which are published by private legal publishers but not officially adopted by the state involved. Legal publishers can, and do, claim copyright in annotations they create themselves for these privately published codes.