Copyright Law Does Not Protect…the Law???

On February 23, 2016, in Copyrights, by Brian A. Hall

UnIntellectual Property (UnIP): Copyright in Letter of the Law

A unique dispute has arisen between two online legal research companies. Lawriter LLC (known as Casemaker) was hired by the state of Georgia to publish the Georgia Administrative Rules and Regulations to the public. Casemaker provides the rules and regulations on a website for free, but also makes money by providing them to in an indexed and always-updated format to larger legal databases such as LexisNexis. When competing legal research company Fastcase published a rendition of those same rules, Casemaker sent a takedown demand to Fastcase in December. In that letter, Casemaker argued that its publication of those rules was copyrightable material, so by republishing them, Fastcase had infringed upon its copyright. In response, Fastcase Inc. field a lawsuit in federal court. In its complaint, Fastcase argued that laws and regulations are not copyrightable material—after all, laws are of a public nature, so makes little sense for a (private) party to exclude others from publishing those laws for viewing. Fastcase hopes to get a declaratory judgment, so that a court will establish this as a matter of law.

Yet in an interesting twist, Casemaker has chosen not to defend against Fastcase’s action for declaratory judgment. Indeed, the CEO told the LawSites blog in an interview that he was “all in favor” of having the court declare that state law is not copyrightable. He stated that Casemaker was in the business of repackaging the state laws in a user-friendly, always up-to-date format so that others could use it, and that this service—as opposed to the laws themselves—was copyrightable.

What does this mean? There’s a few conclusions to be drawn here. First, this dispute is just the latest example of how intellectual property is never a settled matter. As intellectual property litigants, we are always pushing the law to see how it applies in a new context. Second, it is possible that Fastcase did not think this lawsuit through, as it seems unlikely that Casemaker ever seriously thought it could get copyright protections for state laws themselves. But then again, perhaps Casemaker is simply being too clever by half…

*This post is courtesy of Victor Ratiu.  Victor is a third-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law. He reads through these cases so you don’t have to.

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