The Supreme Court essentially ruled in Georgia v. Public Resource.Org, Inc., 590 U.S. ___ (April 27, 2020), that states cannot claim that they are entitled to copyright protection for their laws and related materials. More specifically, the Court held that “copyright does not vest in works that are (1) created by judges and legislators and (2) in the course of their judicial and legislative duties.”
This principle arose out of historical precedent from the 19th century, which set forth the “government edicts” doctrine. The underlying principle behind the doctrine is that “no one can own the law.”
The case arose out of a practice in Georgia in which the state legislature set up a commission to circulate “annotations” to the various laws that were passed within the state. The commission would provide certain vendors with the ability to offer these annotations to lawyers and other consumers of legal information for a fee. Under this arrangement, the commission purported to retain ownership rights over the annotations.
A nonprofit organization attempted to publish the annotations online and make the information available to the general public for free. The commission asserted copyright infringement claims, and the case ultimately ended up before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court sided with the nonprofit organization.