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