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Free Law Litigation since Georgia v. PRO

April 27th marked the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of open access to the law in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org. So it seems like a good time to examine how that ruling has influenced subsequent litigation relevant to Free Law efforts.

To recap, the Supreme Court examined the Government Edicts Doctrine and in a 5-4 vote held that the annotations prepared by LexisNexis at the direction of the Georgia Legislature and adopted as part of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated could not be the subject of copyright because the legislature, vested with the power to make law, could not be an “author” for the purpose of the copyright statute. The Court explained at length why legislators cannot claim copyright in their “non-binding legal works” just as they cannot hold copyright in the statutes themselves.  

As is often the case with Supreme Court decisions, many questions remain.  One issue, already the subject of prior litigation, has been impacted by this guidance from SCOTUS. That issue is whether outside entities who (unlike LexisNexis in the Georgia case) were not working under contract with and under the supervision of a state government can still claim copyright in works like industry standards or model codes when governments incorporate those works by reference into statutes or regulations.  

There are three active pieces of litigation on this issue, all at different stages, where the court has looked to the rule and reasoning of the Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org.  

  • American Society for Testing and Materials v. Public.Resource.Org., Inc., 13-cv-1215 (D. D.C.) 

This case features Public Resource.Org (PRO) defending its publication of various industry standards privately developed by the plaintiffs and later incorporated into law in various jurisdictions. Initially, the trial court granted the plaintiffs summary judgment, but the Court of Appeal for the D.C. Circuit remanded the case for further development of the factual record. After both parties again moved for summary judgment, the Supreme Court decided Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org.; and, the trial court requested more briefing in light of that ruling. The trial court held that the Government Edicts Doctrine did not apply to privately-authored standards, even once those standards are incorporated into law, because they were not authored by a government official or agency. Nevertheless, the court’s mixed ruling was largely favorable to PRO, finding that its publication of most of the standards at issue was protected under the copyright doctrine of fair use. (See the accompanying article, Fair Use & Free Law)

  • International Code Council, Inc. v. Upcodes, Inc., 17 Civ. 6261 (S.D. NY)

The International Code Council (ICC) is a standards development organization that develops model codes with the intent that jurisdictions will adopt them into the law. ICC accused defendant UpCodes of copyright infringement when the latter published on its website various ICC-authored model codes that had been incorporated by reference into the building codes of several jurisdictions. Just weeks after the Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org decision, the court here denied the parties’ competing motions for summary judgment. In harmonizing what SCOTUS had just done with various relevant prior decisions related specifically to the issues of model codes and incorporation by reference, the court deemed it significant that it was the intent of standard developments organizations like ICC that their model codes be adopted by governments and incorporated directly into the law. Consolidated with another case involving a related dispute between the parties, trial on the copyright claims awaits review of the dismissal of that other case by the Second Circuit Court of Appeal.   

  • National Fire Protection Association v. Upcodes, Inc., CV-21-5262 (C.D. Cal.)

In this case, a second standards setting organization (the NFPA) also sued UpCodes over the latter’s publishing of its standards that have been incorporated by reference into the law and sought a preliminary injunction. While the court found that differences in the facts between this case and Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org called into question whether the Government Edicts Doctrine should even apply, it nevertheless denied the injunction because NFPA had not carried its burden of proof at that early stage of litigation to demonstrate that it was likely to prevail against UpCode’s defense of fair use.  
This continuing litigation provides specific examples of what seemed to be clear in the immediate aftermath of the Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org decision: that it, like most decisions, left open more questions than it answered.

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