The Law (©2015) (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 7-30-15)
Of all documents, I can think of no other publication that justifies being in the public domain more so that set of laws and regulations we use to govern ourselves. Developed by elected representatives at the expense of taxpayers, these rules define acceptable and unacceptable behavior within our society. Adherence to these rules may yield financial advantage, while a violation of these rules may require the taking of property, forced incarceration or even a sentence of death. Common sense dictates that the law and our best knowledge of its intent and meaning should be available to all citizens. How else can the citizens follow the law?
Unfortunately, we live in a state that doesn’t seem to share that opinion.
The state of Georgia is currently arguing in federal court that a portion of the state code is a copyrighted work and cannot be distributed without payment. (Ref: Code Revision Commission v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc.)
Honestly, this is the type of insanity you would expect to come out of Washington. Over the past few years, we’ve all been trained that we have to pass a bill before we can see what’s in it. Now we’re being told we also have to pay cash to read it. Have the folks in Atlanta lost their minds?
The case in question involves an application of copyright law. A copyright is a legal right bestowed upon an author of an original work. The copyright provides the author exclusive rights to use and distribute the work for a limited amount of time. This means that during the term of the copyright, no one can use the work without the permission of the author. Typically, the author will request financial compensation in exchange for using the creative work. When someone uses a copyrighted work without the permission of the author, a copyright infringement occurs.
Copyright infringement has been a widespread problem since the beginning of the Internet. Creative works expressed in digital form are protected by copyright. However, digital media is incredibly easy to copy and distribute, as seen by websites such as Napster and Pirate Bay. Organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Artists Association (RIAA) represent the copyright owners and actively fight against unauthorized use. However, groups opposed to copyright law, as well as opportunistic individuals seeking to build media libraries on the cheap, continue to engage in copyright infringement.
Digital copyright infringement can be a very contentious issue. Many folks think that if it’s available on the Internet, the copyright doesn’t apply. Trust me that this is not the case. Every song, video, image or piece of software available on the Internet is protected by copyright. Some authors choose to wave the rights for various reasons. Most authors do not. Downloading or distributing any media outside the bounds of the licensing agreement is pirating. Personally, I’m not a fan of pirating – it’s the same as theft. You wouldn’t steal from one of the artists that set up shop on Broad Street, would you? So why would you steal from some unknown software developer on the web? It just not cool.
That said, the state of Georgia case is a little different. Most digital copyright discussions involve works created by private individuals or organizations. When it comes to copyrights, government organizations have a different set of rules. Federal law specifies that works created by an employee of the Federal Government in the performance of their job duties are not bestowed copyright protections. In addition, federal law also specifies that any edict of any government, no matter what level, will not receive copyright protection. Under these definitions, the Georgia State Government cannot prevent the free distribution of the actual text of Georgia law. BTW – The state of Georgia concurs with this position.
Here’s where Georgia tries to carve out a technical, gray area. A state agency, the Code Revision Commissions, contracts with a 3rd party to create annotations that provide “valuable analysis and guidance regarding state laws.” These annotations include a synopsis of cases interpreting the law, summaries of the Attorney General’s opinion and other information. The state of Georgia asserts that the annotations are a separate creative work protected by copyright (owned by the state of Georgia) and whose distribution is subject to licensing agreements, i.e., financial compensation.
Sounds reasonable, right? Here’s the problem as I see it. First of all, the annotations were created at taxpayer expense and the copyright is held by the state. Doesn’t that make the annotations public property? In addition, in order to fully understand the law, the annotations must be considered – and from what I’ve read about this case, this point is not disputed. So for all intents and purposes, the annotations are fully part of the official code of the state of Georgia!
So, to summarize…Georgia state law is not copyrighted and may be freely distributed. However, the annotations – a work owned by the government and required to properly interpret and understand the law – are protected by copyrighted and cannot be distributed without compensation.
It’s craziness, my friends. Sheer craziness.
Until next time@gregory_a_baker