Making Government Information Public

In two separate articles, James Boyle (Public information wants to be free) and Michael Geist (Keeping an Eye On a Canadian Prize) write about an extremely odd trend — governments “protecting” public information with copyrights.

In the United States, of course, almost all information made public by our various government entities is in the public domain by default. There are some exceptions. The biggest is that universities and other entities can obtain patents on the results of government-funded research. But when the United States publishes weather data, a commission report, or any of the various statistical information that is collected and pubilshed about everything from the number of chickens slaughtered annually to the average hours worked by Asian females, its in the public domain. Anybody can do anything they want with the information and republish it.

Oddly enough, the United States is pretty much alone in this laissez-faire approach to publish information, at least in the Western world. Our neighbors to the north and across the Atlantic prefer to lock up public information behind copyrights and charge people for the right to re-publish or re-use the information.

Geist contrasts the position of publishers in the United States who wanted to reprint the 9/11 Commission report and publishers in Canada who might want to republish the forthcoming Gomery Report, which deals with a government scadal. According to Geist,

The existence of crown copyright (or lack thereof) affects both the print and audio-visual worlds. For example, the 9-11 CommissionÂ’s report, released last year in the U.S., was widely available for free download, yet it also became a commercial success story as the book quickly hit the best seller list once offered for purchase by W.W. Norton, a well-regarded book publisher.

By comparison, a Canadian publisher seeking to release the forthcoming Gomery report as a commercial title would need permission from the government to do so. To obtain such permission, the publisher would be required to provide details on the intended use and format of the work, the precise website address if the work is to appear online, as well as the estimated number of hard copies if the work is to be reprinted. If the work is to be sold commercially, the publisher would be required to disclose the estimated selling price.

That’s odd enough, but the truly weird thing is the Crown copyright extends even to debates in the House of Commons,

After obtaining the desired video from the House of Commons, the filmmaker would be presented with a series of legal terms and conditions limiting its use to school-based private study, research, criticism, or review as well as news reporting on television and radio outlets that are licensed by the CRTC. Everything else, including any commercial use of the video, would require the prior written approval from the Speaker of the House.

Contrast this situation with one found in the U.S. Last yearÂ’s controversial Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 featured a riveting scene in which a steady procession of members of the U.S. Congress rose to challenge the outcome of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election — only to have then Vice-President Al Gore reject each in turn. While Moore faced challenges obtaining the necessary rights for some of the works that he included in his film, given the state of U.S. law, this segment was not one of them.

Very weird.

Boyle notes that in the United States the free availability of something like weather data has created a number of positive externalities compared to Europe where governments charge users who want access to such data,

Take weather data. The United States makes complete weather data available to anyone at the cost of reproduction. If the superb government websites and data feeds arenÂ’t enough, for the price of a box of blank DVDÂ’s you can have the entire history of weather records across the continental US. European countries, by contrast, typically claim government copyright over weather data and often require the payment of substantial fees. Which approach is better? If I had to suggest one article on this subject it would be the magisterial study by Peter Weiss called “Borders in Cyberspace,” published by the National Academies of Science. Weiss suggests that the US approach generates far more social wealth. True, the information is initially provided for free, but a thriving private weather industry has sprung up which takes the publicly funded data as its raw material and then adds value to it. The US weather risk management industry, for example, is ten times bigger than the European one, employing more people, producing more valuable products, generating more social wealth. Another study estimates that Europe invests €9.5bn in weather data and gets approximately €68bn back in economic value – in everything from more efficient farming and construction decisions, to better holiday planning – a 7-fold multiplier. The United States, by contrast invests twice as much – €19bn – but gets back a return of €750bn, a 39-fold multiplier. Other studies suggest similar patterns in areas ranging from geo-spatial data to traffic patterns and agriculture. “Free” information flow is better at priming the pump of economic activity.

Its just mind-blogging that European and the Canadian governments stick to such an outdated policy of making it hard for ordinary citizens to access and republish government information.


Public information wants to be free. James Boyle, Financial Times, February 24, 2005.

Keeping an Eye on a Canadian Prize. Michael Geist, Toronto Star, March 14, 2005.

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