Government data wants to be free

Buckingham palace

Attended a fascinating debate last night on the topic of copyright and government agencies. (No, really. It only sounds tedious.)

Turns out government data in the U.K. is protected by something called crown copyright, which limits people’s ability to legally redistribute it.

It’s hard for me to understand why data collected in the public interest isn’t, in fact, freely usable by the public, as it is where I come from. (The U.K. didn’t have a Freedom of Information law until 2000, and even now data released under FOI is subject to restrictions on reproduction.)

What this means is that many of the mashups based on government data in the U.S. (I’m thinking of stuff like EveryBlock and, yes, much of the output of the L.A. Times’ Data Desk) would be impossible here under the law.

There are some encouraging signs, though:

  • Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur, who was on the panel last night, has helped lead the charge for opening up government information by co-founding the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign. He says a broad, cross-party consensus seems to be forming around the need to open up government data. Unfortunately, the government — which, to be fair, has its hands full with things like war and financial upheaval — hasn’t picked up the gauntlet yet. (Random thought: It’s kind of too bad that news organizations in the U.S. are so skittish about advocating for good causes.)
  • Meanwhile, some people aren’t waiting for the rules to change. For example, runs a site called WhatDoTheyKnow, a sort of clearinghouse for FOI requests and the responses from government agencies to those requests. It would appear that the responses are published without regard for any copyright restrictions, but it’s hard to imagine government lawyers going after a non-profit for reproducing information released under FOI. In other words: When the law doesn’t make sense, maybe it just needs to be bent until it can be changed.


Oops: Got a little sidetracked from my “What I’ve learned in England” posts. They’ll resume soon.

Photo of Buckingham Palace by René Ehrhardt via Flickr