Digitizing Government and the Copyright Hurdle

Written by: Julia Frankosky

Primary Source: Digital Scholarship Collaborative Sandbox

When it comes to information produced by the government, most people think that since it was produced through taxpayer expense, it should be freely and easily available to all. In regards to information produced by the federal government, U.S. copyright law (17 U.S.C. §105) states that these documents are in the public domain: they are free from copyright restrictions and anyone can do whatever they want (digitize, post on their websites, etc.) with these documents. However, when it comes to state and local government information, copyright law does come into effect, much to the dismay of libraries and other institutions wanting to digitize these types of items.

To say that copyright law as it relates to state and local government is complex is an understatement: each state and locality have their own laws and policies, and of course this information is not easy to find. Is this protected by copyright? If so, who owns the rights (the state or local municipality? the department or agency who created the work?)? How can one request permission? It can be quite a mystery and a horrible copyright puzzle to sort out. And often it can be near impossible to track down someone in the government who actually knows the answers to these questions.

This begs the question: are projects related to digitizing state and local government information worth the time, effort, frustration, and potential risk? As a librarian, the answer is obviously yes and there’s currently a group of people over at Free State Government Information are working to get governments to clarify copyright policies and also to increase overall awareness that copyright is an issue affecting these publications.

There are many reasons why digitization efforts are crucial for state/local government information including but not limited to the following:

  • this information can be really hard to track down, with few libraries/organizations/institutions having access to it
  • the copies that do exist can be damaged, lost, or destroyed forever. Having this information in a digital format means that this information is less likely to be lost, thanks to digital archiving. However, even if the agency itself has it up on their website, content is always being moved around, URLs change, and agencies don’t always think about the importance of ensuring what’s on their site is archived somewhere. Libraries and archives do worry about such things and could take steps to ensure proper web archiving.
  • it’s taxpayer funded; we all have a right to be able to access and use these documents/data/publications/etc. but how can we use them if we can’t find them?

When there are barriers to digitization, we all hurt; from the librarians who strive to make as much information freely available to the researchers and scholars who need these studies and reports to aid in their own research projects. Improving clarity of copyright policies for local and state government would at least be a step in the right direction and could allow for more state/local government information digitization projects to move forward.

-Julia Frankosky

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Julia Frankosky
Julia Frankosky is the U.S. and International Government Information Librarian at Michigan State University. She also serves as liaison to James Madison College, providing reference assistance and library instruction to this residential college. Prior to this position, she was the Assistant Copyright Librarian at MSU. She holds a B.A. in History from MSU and a M.L.I.S. with a concentration in Records and Information Management from Wayne State University.
Julia Frankosky

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