Public data that has been generated or commissioned by government bodies should always be available to the public without restrictions on its use by copyright or other laws. That's the spirit behind excluding works authored by the federal government from copyright restrictions, and the strong legal precedent that the law itself cannot be copyrighted. EFF has now joined a growing list of organizations and individuals supporting a set of best practices for federal government agencies that wish to give a clear green light to the reuse of their data.
We join the document's primary author Joshua Tauberer of GovTrack.us, the Sunlight Foundation, Public Knowledge, the Open Knowledge Foundation, MuckRock, Carl Malamud, and many other public interest organizations and individuals in supporting this important endeavor.
In practice, the public already benefits from the absence of copyright restrictions on government data. But wherever there are perceived ambiguities, they can create friction that bogs down lawful reuses or even creates chilling effects on speech.
As just one example, EFF is representing the archivist Carl Malamud in a copyright case that centers on his publishing codes and standards that have been incorporated into the law. We can hope explicit statements from federal agencies following these best practices could embolden more archivists to reuse and republish these codes, and discourage standards development organizations and others from attempting to use copyright as an intimidation tactic.
In cases where government data is produced by a contractor, clarification is even more essential. The same principles apply—this is work funded by the public, and should therefore belong to the public—but the law doesn't provide the same sort of clarity about free reuse as it does for works created by the government itself. To bring that situation into line with the spirit of the law, the best practices recommend the contractor or agency release the work without restriction.
Finally, the newly updated version of these best practices addresses the related issue of licensing for government-produced software. The history of unrestricted publications of laws is a lot longer than that of software, but we're starting to see more examples, including efforts like the White House's open source release of the We The People petition platform. We hope to see more examples in the years to come. The best practices document explains that government-written software should be just as clearly in the public domain as government data.
We all benefit from a robust public domain, and government data and works are particularly obvious examples. Freely reusable public data is essential to a functioning democracy.