In Georgia, access to government information is terrorism

08-welcome-to-georgia-sign.w710.h473.2xPoor Carl Malamud; he just wanted to do something good for the people of Georgia. No good deed goes unpunished, though, and his good deed – putting the Georgia code online so that everyone would have free, convenient access to the laws of their state – resulting in the state suing him for copyright infringement and characterizing his actions as part of a “strategy of terrorism.” 

This is Georgia, of course; this is a state that doesn’t want its citizens to vote, never mind understand the laws that govern them. At issue is not the laws themselves, which the state makes available online and through a legal publisher, but the annotations that the publisher has added, which Malamud has included.

Are these annotations some kind of intellectual property deserving of special protection? Here’s an example:

For instance, Georgia has a law on the books making sodomy a crime. An annotation tells the reader that the law has been held unconstitutional “insofar as it criminalizes the performance of private, unforced, noncommercial acts of sexual intimacy between persons legally able to consent.”

Professor Street said she tells her law students to be sure to consult the annotations in Georgia’s official code.

“When you go to a statute, you see the language of the statute, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you the meaning,” she said. “You go to the annotations, which leads you to the court decisions, where the judges actually tell you what the words mean.”

This seems like exactly the sort of information that should be made available freely to the people of Georgia, whether by the state directly or through third parties like a legal publisher… or Carl Malamud.

The issue here is privatization of public assets. It’s perfectly reasonable to pay for a set of books that a publisher has created with this information, but hardly reasonable to prevent others from getting at it if they can’t pay. Georgia may decide to achieve the goal of providing this information to the public by paying someone to put it together, but charging people to know and understand the law that governs them? That’s fundamentally bad.

Fortunately, Mr. Malamud won the last round in court.

“The annotations clearly have authoritative weight in explicating and establishing the meaning and effect of Georgia’s laws,” Judge Stanley Marcus wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the court, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta. “Georgia’s courts have cited to the annotations as authoritative sources on statutory meaning and legislative intent.”

But when you have a government being run for the benefit of those who pay to play, it’s likely that Georgia will try to find some way around this. Be glad that people like Carl Malamud are taking on the burden of pushing governments to serve the citizens instead; that’s not terrorism, that’s democracy.

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