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Court finds West opinion reports are not copyrightable

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  1. Content Restrictions
Court finds West opinion reports are not copyrightable 06/02/97 NEW YORK--The text of legal opinions by judges is public information…

Court finds West opinion reports are not copyrightable

06/02/97

NEW YORK–The text of legal opinions by judges is public information and is not subject to copyright by legal publishers, a federal District Court in Manhattan ruled in late May.

CD-ROM publisher Hyperlaw, Inc., of New York City can scan the full text of cases compiled by West Reporters, the nation’s leading court case publisher, without violating West’s copyright, Judge John Martin ruled.

West can claim a compilation copyright he, said, in its arrangement of cases, its indices, its headnotes and its selection of cases for publication, but it cannot claim a copyright in a reported decision.

The judge noted that in its legal reporter publications West makes changes in the way cases are presented. It capitalizes the title and portions that will be used in citing; it adds parallel citations, the docket number and dates when the case was argued and decided, and subsequent history such as “rehearing denied” and the dates of those later actions. But even though West’s work in presenting these cases is time consuming and valuable to the court and to attorneys, the information it adds is factual and exhibits no creative effort that would merit copyright protection.

The actual changes West makes to the cases it reports are trivial and “taken separately or collectively” do not result in a distinguishable variation of the courts’ language, the judge said, adding that the opinions are the work of federal judges and are basically government documents.

Hyperlaw told the court that it scans many cases directly from court documents. However the CD-ROM publisher has only been collecting cases since 1990 and plans to scan earlier cases into its system directly from West Publishing. Ultimately the company might scan up to 75 percent of West’s cases into its system, Hyperlaw president Alan Sugarman told the court. (Hyperlaw, Inc. v. West Publishing Company; Hyperlaw counsel: Paul Ruskin, Douglaston, N.Y.)