Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2020


New York University Journal of Intellectual Property & Entertainment Law





First Page


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Recently, state governments have begun to claim a copyright interest in their official published codes of law, in particular arguing that ancillary materials such as annotations to the statutory text are subject to state-held copyright protection because those materials are not binding commands that carry the force of law. Litigation over this issue and a vigorous policy debate are ongoing.

This article contributes a historical perspective to this ongoing debate over copyright in texts relating to the law. It reviews the history of government production and use of annotations, commentaries, legislative debates, and other related information relevant to the law but not pure statutory text, from Rome and China to England and America. These historical episodes reveal three lessons of relevance to the debate. First, there is consistent recognition that "the law" is not limited to binding statutory language. Second, exclusivity over nonbinding legal texts such as annotations, whether through copyright or other means, confers undue power on government and the legal profession over the public. Third, annotations and other nonbinding legal texts are historically distinguishable from case reports or private treatises, contrary to the arguments generally proffered by the copyright-claiming states. These lessons militate toward broad-exclusion from copyright of state-authored informative legal texts, whether binding or not.



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