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Making US Government Data License-Free

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CC-0-PD-blog

Josh Tauberer, Jonathan Gray and I have released new and improved recommendations for ensuring that US government data remains license-free, and is available worldwide without restriction. From the recommendations:

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.

The recommendations offer specific examples and suggested language for a few different situations, but it amounts to: Use the CC0 public domain dedication wherever copyright may exist, even when it's complicated.

You can read a statement of support today by Josh Tauberer (the primary author), the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and MuckRock. Our recommendations have also been endorsed by quite a few other people and public interest groups.

See the document in full at theunitedstates.io/licensing.

We released an earlier version in August, and since then have made a raft of improvements based on feedback and experience since then. The document is hosted using Github, and you can raise feedback and suggestions there.

Why This Document Exists

So, why did we go to the trouble of doing this? After all, in the United States, government works are in the public domain. We know this. The law says this.

But in practice, it's not always so simple. The US government can still exert copyright protection internationally. Even in the US, copyright can get murky when the government hires outside contractors. And sometimes the government just can't resist trying to restrict what you can do with their work anyway, even when there's no legal grounding.

Still, the United States' foundation of public domain for government works is vital. Internationally, it's very common for governments to actively maintain copyright for their work. That copyright can and is used to limit the flow and re-use of public information. The basic right for US government works to be re-used without permission and for anything at all underlies the entire open government movement in the US.

That's why it was worrying when earlier this year, the White House issued an executive order and memorandum on open data that, while widely lauded, repeatedly called for government data to be released under "open licenses". As Josh Tauberer explains, this is a dangerous way to release open data — because it is public domain, US government data cannot and should not be licensed at all in the US.

This sparked a few discussions at the White House's collaborative home page for the memorandum, Project Open Data, and this eventually led to the first version of our recommendations.

Since then, Project Open Data has re-licensed its own content and code under the CC0 public domain dedication. This is particularly useful because they dealt with the issue of contributions from the public, and ensured that they are also automatically dedicated to the public domain.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau then publicly worked through the dedication of its qu project to the worldwide public domain using CC0, citing Project Open Data as an example — and then did the same for its eRegs platform.

Based on these experiences, and others' feedback, today's update to our recommendations makes it more explicit that CC0 can apply to software, encourages agencies to figure out the IP status of works when it's unclear, and a host of other changes, with some attached discussion.

We hope this guidance — and the positive government examples it points to — will be useful as the federal government implements its new open data strategy. Special thanks goes to Josh Tauberer for leading this project, and to Jonathan Gray at OKFN for his early and extensive contributions.

(Note: This post has been updated with links to similar statements of support.)