What's the legality of republishing public government documents?
June 29, 2005 7:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for information about the legality (copyright etc) of republishing public government documents... Specifically election results and voter registration data.

I want to put the election results for my city going back into the 50s online but I'm unsure of where to look to see if this is legal and/or what the restrictions are.

In real life, the documents are extremely hard to track down - but they do exist and are public reports from our city's commissioner. The results I've found are buried in old books in library stacks that no one visits and I think the information would be very useful to people if they just had it at their fingertips.

Are there any websites/places I should look that have handy guides to this kind of thing?
posted by tozturk to Law & Government (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is what I find on the copyright.gov website, under What Isn't Protected:

Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)

And also this:

Works by the U. S. Government are not eligible for U. S. copyright protection. For works published on and after March 1, 1989, the previous notice requirement for works consisting primarily of one or more U. S. Government works has been eliminated. However, use of a notice on such a work will defeat a claim of innocent infringement as previously described provided the notice also includes a statement that identifies either those portions of the work in which copyright is claimed or those portions that constitute U. S. Government material.

Example: © 2002 Jane Brown. Copyright claimed in Chapters 7-10, exclusive of U. S. Government maps

Copies of works published before March 1, 1989, that consist primarily of one or more works of the U. S. Government should have a notice and the identifying statement.

So, you should be absolutely fine.
posted by odinsdream at 8:51 PM on June 29, 2005

Hmmm ... slow day ... no lawyers have popped up to answer the question, so:

IANAL, but federal government documents certainly are not copyrightable. The law, however, is different for state (and local) governments - some place government documents in the public domain, some (apparently) do not, retaining copyright. (Google note: "public domain" is a much better search term than, say, "copyright".)

In your case, one way to tell would be to look for the copyright symbol on the documents of interest. Another would simply be to ask the city (I recommend sending a letter to your city councilmember, asking him/her to check if there are any legal obstacles, rather than sending a letter to, say, the mayor or legal counsel directly).

Finally, even if you're told that the documents are not in the public domain (I'd guess that to be unlikely, but ... ), as long as you don't turn their web-publishing into a commercial venture, I'd give long odds that the city will leave you along - it would be embarrassing to sue someone in such circumstances, yes?

On preview - odinsdream is talking only about federal government documents.
posted by WestCoaster at 8:57 PM on June 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

WestCoaster: Your state and local governments link is from 1994 and a little outdated. In 2002 Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc. the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that law cannot be subject to copyright, which includes building codes. In 2003 the SCOTUS declined to hear an appeal of that ruling.
posted by revgeorge at 9:07 PM on June 29, 2005

As odinsdream says, you can't copyright facts. Secondly, anything that's from before 1989 that doesn't specifically say it is copyrighted is not copyrighted. Finally, as a practical matter, I doubt the city will care about you posting freely available data with no commercial value.
posted by grouse at 1:02 AM on June 30, 2005

There is however a difference between voter rolls [the name and address of voters] and voting results. The former will be subject to privacy laws and likely harder to get. That's all I got, however the folks over at FreeGovInfo should be able to answer your questions. It's a site run by Gov Docs librarians who are pretty activist about citizens exercising their maximum rights to government information, you might want to drop them a note about how you'd go about your project.
posted by jessamyn at 6:25 AM on June 30, 2005

Thanks for everyone's help so far.

I should clarify..

I want to publish aggregate data - ie, "There are 9000 Democrats in Ward xx. There are 2000 Democrats in Ward xx."
posted by tozturk at 6:56 AM on June 30, 2005

A company locally (Corvallis, Oregon) collected that information by ward for Corvallis going back a long way and sells it to parties/candidates every election. If they can sell it, I'd bet that you can post it. It's pretty interesting stuff... "Ward xx had 60% registered Democrats in year x & went 60% republican" is useful knowledge, especially if its analyzed for trends. Might be able to pick up a few bucks if you play your cards right ;)
posted by devilsbrigade at 3:43 PM on June 30, 2005

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