If you publish Georgia’s state laws, you’ll get sued for copyright and lose

[6/19/17]  If you want to read the official laws of the state of Georgia, it will cost you more than $1,000.

Open-records activist Carl Malamud bought a hard copy, and it cost him $1,207.02 after shipping and taxes. A copy on CD was $1,259.41. The “good” news for Georgia residents is that they’ll only have to pay $385.94 to buy a printed set from LexisNexis.

Malamud thinks reading the law shouldn’t cost anything. So a few years back, he scanned a copy of the state of Georgia’s official laws, known as the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, or OCGA. Malamud made USB drives with two copies on them, one scanned copy and another encoded in XML format. On May 30, 2013, Malamud sent the USB drives to the Georgia speaker of the House, David Ralson, and the state’s legislative counsel, as well as other prominent Georgia lawyers and policymakers.

“Access to the law is a fundamental aspect of our system of democracy, an essential element of due process, equal protection, and access to justice,” said Malamud in the enclosed letter. The law, he reminded them, isn’t copyrighted.

The envelopes themselves announced Malamud’s belief in the strength of his argument. “UNIMPEACHABLE!” read the fruit-adorned stickers, surrounded by American flags. “Code is law,” they continued, that phrase being the first words that appear in a well-known book by Harvard Law Prof. Lawrence Lessig.

Georgia lawmakers’ response to Malamud’s gifts was anything but peachy. “Your unlawful copying… Infringes on the exclusive copyright of the state of Georgia,” read the response letter, written by the chairman of Georgia’s Code Revision Commission, Josh McKoon. “Accordingly, you are hereby notified to CEASE AND DESIST ALL COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT.”

McKoon told Malamud to stop copying, destroy his files, and remove the laws from his website. If he didn’t comply within 10 days, they would file a lawsuit to force his hand and promised to seek damages for “willful infringement.” There was an unannotated copy of state law available for free on the state’s website, McKoon reminded him, and that would have to suffice. (More on that “free” copy later.)