July 29, 2015

This week in legislative ineptitude: State of Georgia wildly misconstrues purpose and meaning of the word “copyright”, sues man for helping people understand the law of the land

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Seal_of_Georgia.svg

(via Wikipedia)

An interesting story has been unfolding over at TechDirt the last couple of weeks. As reported by Mike Masnick, Carl Malamud, owner and operator of the transparency advocacy group Public.Resource.Org, is being sued for copyright infringement by the State of Georgia. The legal issue at hand is whether or not Georgia’s copyright on annotated versions of its publicly available legal texts prevents transparency activists and online publishers of state documents from reproducing and disseminating these texts, freely, online. The two posts up on TechDirt are well worth reading in full, as they provide much more robust and nuanced coverage than we’re able to do here, but there are a couple of interesting nuggets that I’d like to run through the sifter.

What’s happened, in short, is that the State of Georgia, presumably as a means towards simplifying a legal code which is cumbersome to the point of uselessness, contracted LexisNexis — a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier, much reviled corporate sponsor of SOPA and PIPA — to produce the OCGA (Offical Code of Georgia Annotated), which — as its name suggests — is a fully annotated text of Georgia’s laws. All of them. This sounds like a pretty useful document, no? Indeed, it is so useful, that both LexisNexis and the State of Georgia, insist that it is “essential” to any understanding of the law:

The Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) provides users with the official Georgia statutes, fully annotated and including guidance from the Georgia Code Commission. If you live or work in Georgia, the OCGA is the essential reference you need to guide you quickly and efficiently in understanding the Georgia statutory scheme

And, as reported by Masnick, the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance refers to this document as the primary reference text for those seeking information on Georgia statues.

The State of Georgia holds the copyright to this supremely useful document (a copyright which under normal circumstances it would be categorically denied by federal law and legal precedent), with LexisNexis as something like the official sponsor of said document. As you can see at the DBF’s site, all queries after the OCGA are forwarded to LexisNexis’ website, where, after agreeing to a typically arcane Terms and Conditions of Use, you can peruse the OCGA at your leisure. It’s free to read! I just read some of it. It was about the administrative and managerial powers held by the state of Georgia over its penal institutions. I would tell you more, but I’m afraid I would violate the aforementioned terms of condition and use, which, for the record, is 4500 words long. Which is where the arrangement starts to seem strange.

While you don’t technically have to pay LexisNexis or Reed Elsevier or the State of Georgia to access these documents, you do have to sign a legally binding document that a good 99% of people are going to be unable or unwilling to comprehend in full. Presumably the reason someone would be seeking out the annotated set of laws in the first place is that they’re not so strong on legal language. Which makes the target audience of this particular document particularly vulnerable to any sort of legal shenanigans that Reed Elsevier might want to pull. In other words, in order to access a useful and user friendly version of the law, which every citizen of Georgia is expected to abide by, regardless of their foreknowledge of it, must submit themselves to the tender mercies of the Reed Elsevier legal department. And woe be upon them. Because it wouldn’t be the first time that this kind corporate citizen played fast and loose with our privacy. For more information on the data brokerage that Reed Elsevier routinely engages in, see here.

It’s worth noting that Georgia may not be operating strictly outside the letter of the law. However, that doesn’t mean that what the state is doing is in the best interests of its citizens. In fact, it seems clear that it is operating against these interests. And, while it claims that protecting copyright on these kinds of documents is necessary to ensure that they continue to be made, it also seems that if someone other than corporate supervillians would probably be able to step in and fill the gap, were LexisNexis decide it wasn’t worth the time. And wouldn’t this be a better solution for everyone?

Because what’s really happening here, is that the State of Georgia has been deputized as a corporate attack dog, protecting an unnecessary and undemocratic market in the name of copyright protection. Which is fucked up.

 

Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.

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