Banks v. Manchester

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In Banks v. Manchester, 128 U.S. 244 (1888), the U.S. Supreme Court held that judicial decisions, though expressive, may not be copyrighted. β€œThe whole work done by the judges constitutes the authentic exposition and interpretation of the law, which, binding every citizen, is free for publication to all, whether it is a declaration of unwritten law, or an interpretation of a constitution or a statute.” Id. at 253 (citation omitted).

While that decision cited the copyright statute, this rule may also derive from the U.S. Constitution. β€œ[T]his court ... 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 254 (quotation omitted).

The Court explained:

there has always been a judicial consensus, from the time of the decision in the case of Wheaton v. Peters, 8 Pet. 591, that no copyright could, under the statutes passed by Congress, be secured in the products of the labor done by judicial officers in the discharge of their judicial duties. The whole work done by the judges constitutes the authentic exposition and interpretation of the law, which, binding every citizen, is free for publication to all, whether it is a declaration of unwritten law, or an interpretation of a constitution or statute.

This precedent has been widely followed.

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