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GA Code Ruling Sparks Ownership Questions

Monday, May 11, 2020

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled at the end of last month against the state of Georgia in a copyright lawsuit over annotations to its legal code, determining that annotations cannot be copyrighted.

The 5-4 ruling upholds a previous appeals court decision after a years-long battle.

What Happened

The Official Code of Georgia Annotated is the state’s official code that includes the text of every state statute currently in force, as well as non-binding annotations such as summaries of judicial opinions, law review articles and reference materials.

The OCGA is assembled by the Code Revisions Commission and produced by a division of the LexisNexis Group under a work-for-hire agreement with the Commission.

Zolnierek / Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled at the end of last month against the state of Georgia in a copyright lawsuit over annotations to its legal code, determining that annotations cannot be copyrighted.

Public.Resource.Org (PRO) is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to facilitating public access to government records and legal materials.” The organization posted the OCGA online and distributed copies to various organizations and officials.

After sending several case-and-desist letters, the Commission sued PRO for infringing on copyright citing the Copyright Act, which grants monopoly protection for “original works for authorship.” PRO counterclaimed, saying that the entire OCGA fell into public domain.

The District Court sided with the Commission, saying that the annotations were eligible for copyright protection, but the 11th Circuit reversed, which the Supreme Court held.

The Court said that because the OCGA is written by the Commission, which is a legislative branch, the annotations were created as part of the Commission’s legislative duty and therefore not considered private authorship and therefore not protected under the Copyright Act.


Some are calling this a win for open information access, pointing to the International Code Council’s ongoing lawsuit against startup website UpCodes, which aims to give free access to codes, updates and amendments from more than 30 states.

The ICC—joined by the American Society of Civil Engineers—originally filed the federal civil lawsuit in New York Southern District Court in August 2017 and names web startup UpCodes, along with its founders, brothers Garrett and Scott Reynolds, as defendants in the case.

UpCodes was created in 2016 after Scott, who had been working as an architect, teamed up with his brother to gather code compliance rules in one place.

In a previous statement given to PaintSquare Daily News, the ICC said:

“The International Code Council is a non-profit association with over 64,000 members, which through a rigorous, open and transparent process, develops the highest quality codes and standards that make structures safer and more sustainable, affordable and resilient. These codes are relied upon by governmental entities around the world, which on their own may not have the resources or expertise available to fund development of these codes and standards or to keep them up to date. Importantly, ICC offers free online access to its codes because we fully recognize the public has a right to know the law."

While anyone can view ICC codes for free, other functions, such as distribution, are disabled behind a paywall, which is the focus of the infringement argument.

The Reynolds brothers argue that the codes should fall under fair use doctrine, thus protecting them in this lawsuit, stating in a press release at the time that: “Laws, such as the International Building Codes, govern construction. Every municipality in America has a department that strictly enforces building codes.”

In recent interviews, both sides see the Georgia outcome as positive.

ICC’s council notes that the ICC is a private entity, and therefore its codes should be entitled to copyright protection. UpCodes’ council infers the opposite, that because laws are made surrounding the codes, the codes are essentially the law and without ownership, thereby not protected.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Building codes; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Good Technical Practice; ICC; Latin America; Laws and litigation; Lawsuits; North America; Z-Continents

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