Pay As You Know

THE RIGHT OF governments to copyright information is a hot topic these days; while it's prohibited at the federal level on the grounds of inconsistency with democratic principles, states are latching on to it as a way to generate revenue in a time of shrinking budgets. If once-entirely public information is copyrighted, the reasoning goes, it can be sold as a commodity--for a profit, that is. According to "Twin Evils," a study published recently in the Syracuse Law Review, 28 states currently use some form of copyright. And the state of Minnesota's Government Information Access Council is now holding a low-profile series of meetings to talk about getting in on the action.

The proposal under review will ultimately be decided by the Legislature, but the GIAC--whose members include Vance Opperman, the president of West Publishing, which recently tried to claim ownership of a federal case-law database--is framing the discussion. What copyrighting would mean to citizens who might want the government data isn't clear yet. But the present thinking is that an agency would be able to copyright a piece of information if it fit certain standards, some of which would be extremely vague: Information, for instance, could be so classified whenever its accuracy, timeliness, or comprehensiveness were a critical matter. ("That could include anything," groused one GIAC working group member.) More static records, such as the texts of laws, judicial opinions, and state reports, would be excluded.

GIAC director Tom Satre maintains that copyrighting information wouldn't hinder general access, only use. "We are trying to ensure that citizens will have access and use of all information that will allow them to be good democratic citizens," he says, adding that government agencies already have limited copyright authority and "that hasn't been abused."

But the Syracuse Law Review article contends that making public information the proprietary holding of the state will likely mean prohibitive fees, restricted access, and whole new species of political gamesmanship: If the government can copyright its own data, notes the author, "information that is embarrassing, inconvenient, or inconsistent with official pronouncements could not only be withheld, but publication by others might even be prevented since publication violates the rights of the copyright holder." One member of the Minnesota working group mentioned that it would be impossible to protect copyrighted data if it were distributed over the Internet; the response was that if that were the case, it wouldn't be posted there.

Satre says there is a two-year review process built into the proposal: "If there are complaints that maybe the government shouldn't have that authority, that can be reviewed. I am convinced they are not going to find that."

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