Intellectual Property/Copyright Law. Under the government edicts doctrine, judges and legislators may not be considered the “authors” of, and therefore cannot copyright, the works they produce in the course of their official duties as judges and legislators.1 The doctrine provides that the laws/edicts of the government, such as court opinions, statutes, and ordinances, are in the public domain and not subject to copyright ownership.
The government edicts doctrine is based on the reasoning that, since every citizen is presumed to know and to follow the law, all citizens should have free access to its contents. The laws of the land that the citizens are expected to know and abide should not be reduced to property through copyright, whether by individuals or by the government itself.
The government edicts doctrine originated in Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. 591 (1834). In that case, Henry Wheaton was the third reporter of the United States Supreme Court’s decisions; Peters the fourth. After Peters took over, he allegedly copied considerably from Wheaton’s books in preparing condensed reports concerning the Terms before he started his own run. The Supreme Court in Wheaton v. Peters was presented with, inter alia, the issue of whether Wheaton acquired a copyright in the Court’s opinions themselves “by judges’ gift.” Wheaton argued that “copy[right] in the opinions, as they were new, original and unpublished, must have belonged to some one,” and “[i]f to the judges, they gave it to Mr. Wheaton.” Id. at 615.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Wheaton’s proposition. It held, instead, that no one could claim copyright in the Court’s opinions, however new or original they might be. In the Court’s words, it was “unanimously of opinion, that no reporter has or can have any copyright in the written opinions delivered by this court; and that the judges thereof cannot confer on any reporter any such right.” Id. at 668.
The scope of the doctrine was expanded in Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org, Inc., 590 U.S. __ (2020), in which the Supreme Court held that annotations contained in Georgia’s official annotated code fell within the government edicts doctrine and were ineligible for copyright protection.
1. The term “edict” means a positive law promulgated by the sovereign of a country, and having reference either to the whole land or some of its divisions, but usually relating to affairs of state. An edict is distinguishable from a “public proclamation,” in that it enacts a new statute, and carries with it the authority of law.