Man Labelled a Copyright Infringing Terrorist for Posting the Law Online for Free

Is publishing the law online for free an act of copyright infringement and terrorism? As far as Georgia is concerned, yes.

In legal circles, “ignorantia legis neminem excusat” is an immediately recognizable Latin line. According to Wikipedia, it can be translated to “ignorance of law excuses no one”.

Of course, that more or less hinges on the idea of the law being available to read in the first place. Educating one’s self on the law is something that won’t get very many opponents as well. So, who would have a problem with the idea of allowing someone to post the law online for free? The state of Georgia apparently.

The New York Times has published a profile (warning: possibly reg walled) of Carl Malamud who made it a mission to post the laws online for free. It’s a pretty non-controversial effort and even Malamud didn’t think this pursuit would be anything other than a public education campaign.

That’s when the state of Georgia stepped in and filed a lawsuit against him. The problem? Publishing the law in this manner is an act of copyright infringement as far as Georgia is concerned. Here’s an excerpt:

But when Mr. Malamud’s group posted the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, the state sued for copyright infringement. Providing public access to the state’s laws and related legal materials, Georgia’s lawyers said, was part of a “strategy of terrorism.”

A federal appeals court ruled against the state, which has asked the Supreme Court to step in. On Friday, in an unusual move, Mr. Malamud’s group, Public.Resource.Org, also urged the court to hear the dispute, saying that the question of who owns the law is an urgent one, as about 20 other states have claimed that parts of similar annotated codes are copyrighted.

The issue, the group said, is whether citizens can have access to “the raw materials of our democracy.”

The case, Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, No. 18-1150, concerns the 54 volumes of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, which contain state statutes and related materials.

For Georgia, they are having a hard time winning over very many sympathizers at this point. On the surface, an annotated version might sound like something that just expands on what the law says. Therefore, it sounds like the lawyers behind writing the annotations should own the rights to it. LexisNexis was commissioned by the state of Georgia to produce the annotated version of this. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems here.

One problem many cite is the fact that the annotations detail case law. That is, if a legal dispute takes place, then the courts could theoretically either change the laws or clarify the laws. So, the original law isn’t necessarily the full picture.

Another problem is the fact that, in Georgia, the annotated version is what lawyers and the courts follow, not necessarily the original laws in the books. So, when Malamud published the annotated version, he really is publishing the actual laws themselves. Many, of course, point out that such information should be in the public domain.

Over top of this, not only is it the opinion of a lot of people that the laws should be made public, but court cases dating as far back as the 1800’s pretty much agree that the laws should be made available free of charge.

Because of these reason among others, a lot of people are siding with Malamud on this one. Copyrighting the law would raise so many problems in the legal world anyway. Unfortunately, it seems that Georgia isn’t backing down. They are still pushing to put an end to this effort – claims of terrorism and all. So, if Malamud gets his way, this issue could finally reach a conclusion sooner rather than later.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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