Public Knowledge Supports Guidelines for Open Government Data

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Public Knowledge has joined ten other organizations in support of a set of existing guidelines for releasing public government data in the United States, entitled “Open Government Data: Best-Practices Language for Making Data ‘License-Free’”.


The guidelines were first published in August 2013 and a new and improved version was released today. The document states:

…it is essential that U.S. federal government agencies have the tools to preserve the United States’ long legal tradition of ensuring that public information created by the federal government is exempt from U.S. copyright and remains free for everyone to use without restriction.

Data that has no restrictions on reuse is referred to as “license-free”. License-free government data promotes both a transparent democracy and entrepreneurial innovation. For instance, license-free data can be accessed, analyzed, visualized, and shared by academics, journalists, businesspersons, and voters.

To be clear, no one needs to wait for a license to make use of works created by the U.S. Government.  Those works are, by law, automatically in the public domain.  But, as we detailed in the past, oftentimes parts of the government use licenses that suggest that some uses of works are not allowed.

The copyright status of works produced on behalf of the U.S. Government is not as clear. Because of this, the guidelines suggest language to include with specific data publications, including federal government works, government works produced by a contractor, and primary legal materials. This language is intended to clarify the license-free principle and its permission for reuse. It is important to note that data is “license-free” only if copyright and similar laws do not apply or have been waived, and there are no restrictions on use or sharing of the data except as set forth in existing law. License-free means without restriction.

U.S. copyright law specifically states that works created by the federal government receive no copyright protection, unless a specific exemption applies. Clear language explaining that the data is license-free serves as a critical reminder that it can be freely reused and redistributed, without fear of legal repercussions.

Earlier this year, the White House issued an executive order that called for government data to be released under “open licenses”. However, this licensing creates uncertainty for those who might want to use the data, and allows for agencies to arbitrarily impose restrictions on government data that is legally in the public domain.  Since this data is not protected by copyright, the government cannot even impose a share-alike condition on its use. Instead, agencies should use Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0) to clarify that their data is completely free to be reused.  

We hope that U.S. federal agencies will adopt the recommended language in order to make sure it is known that their data publications are in the public domain. As the guidelines state, government data is more valuable when it is clear that there is a green light enabling reuse.

And for more about today's release, check out posts by the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation, and Josh Tauberer.

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