Why we must cut the costly Crown copyright
The Times Law section, 27 September 2005
By Heather Brooke
The Green Party called for the repeal of Crown Copyright at its recent party conference, the latest in a growing campaign to abolish restrictive copyrights on public sector information and encourage greater re-use by citizens and business.
In an unusual alliance, pro-democracy advocates and big business want an end to the complex copyright system in which public authorities up and down the country are restricting access to everything from staff directories and restaurant inspections to tidal timetables. Even plans to create a national database of postal addresses have stumbled because the various public bodies involved can’t agree who owns the copyright to postal addresses! “In the UK, excessive intellectual property rights prevent access to and dissemination of vast areas of knowledge,” says Matt Wootton, of the Green Party. “Our policy seeks to abolish Crown and other types of restrictive copyright that restricts most material originated by ministers and civil servants, which has been paid for by the UK taxpayer.”
Lawyers, too, are hit hard, as they pay substantial fees to access consolidated law or governmental reports. In the US, this is information that would be provided free or at little cost; federal law states any text produced by government is free from copyright and passes immediately into the public domain. Unoriginal compilations of fact – public or private – may not be owned, says Professor James Boyle of Duke Law School, who has studied copyright regimes in the US and Europe. Confounding expectation, Boyle says the US Government exercises “information socialism”, whereas the UK and Europe are out for maximum short-term profit at the expense of social welfare and long-term economic growth; even the EU Directive on the re-use of Public Sector Information, enacted in July 2005, presumes that government data be sold for profit.
“Perhaps the claim is that making activities recoup their own costs will allow us to expand the information that is made available,” says Boyle. “But that argument fails empirically. There is considerably more geographic and weather information available in the US, which gives it away free, than in the countries that use Crown copyright.”
Rufus Pollock, of the Open Knowledge Foundation cites the $500 million, copyright-free US weather data as the reason why the US weather risk-management industry is ten times bigger than the European one, for example. That means more jobs, producing more valuable products, generating more social wealth.
Research carried out in 2000 by Pira International for the European Commission found that the US information industry was five times larger than its European counterpart, even though the two economies were almost equal in size. The main difference, the Commission stated, was the much more liberal rules on re-use of federal information in the USA.
The Office of Public Sector Information (formerly known as Her Majesty’s Stationery Office) has created a “click-use” licence for some types of public information, though this extends only to current legislation, some parliamentary documents and government press releases.
“Building this system and spreading it out across government is very much part of the Government’s policy to encourage the re-use of information,” said a Cabinet Office spokesman.
Yet the most useful types of public sector information are excluded from click-use licences and carry heavy fees: land registration (held by the Land Registry), mapping (Ordnance Survey), weather (Meteorological Office) and sea charts (UK Hydrographic Office).
The problem here arises because these public bodies were redefined as “trading funds” by the Treasury and mandated by law to charge for their data even though it was originally, and in many cases still is, compiled at public expense.
While it may seem sensible to charge for these resources, a more detailed analysis shows quite the opposite. More than 50 per cent of national UK mapping data is actually sold back to government, which means the taxpayer effectively pays not once but dozens, if not hundreds, of times (through fees and/or council tax).
The restricted availability of Ordnance Survey data is perhaps the most contentious, thwarting everyone from pro-democracy groups that need to discover electoral boundaries to private companies such as the AA that require mapping for road atlases.
Even using information obviously in the public interest is fraught with difficulty. When Francis Irving, a software developer, was building the pro-democracy website They Work For You, which allows citizens to follow their MP’s activities in Parliament, he was threatened with legal action because the site used Hansard material, protected by parliamentary copyright.
“We had to take the risk of publishing without a licence because we believe everyone has a right to reproduce what their MP has been saying in Parliament,” Irving says. “Parliament very kindly did eventually give us a licence, but one shouldn’t have to rely on their kindness. It should be every citizen’s right to reproduce that information without having to ask permission.”
“The free information primes the pump of the private sector, just as free roads allow more economic activity and tax revenue than a patchwork of toll roads,” says Boyle. “On this issue, the empirical evidence is fairly clear. And it points squarely against Crown copyright.”