Feds in a Web world: public domain vs. copyright

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Date: Mar. 1998
From: Searcher(Vol. 6, Issue 3)
Publisher: Information Today, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,824 words

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In a long-running argument with some of my colleagues, including the esteemed editor of this magazine, I have debated opposing sides on the issue of whether or not government-generated databases reside in the public domain. On the one hand, the government has no right to impose restrictions on usage of information retrieved from databases funded by tax-supported dollars, even when available on commercial vendors or on the Web. There should be no regulation as to the amount of copying allowed, the creation of derivative databases, or the use of retrieved information for commercial purposes. On the other hand, when the government copies abstracts and keywords directly from publishers' journals and other copyrighted materials -- either by entering into licensing agreements or seeking permissions from the publishers -- then the government has a prerogative to levy conditions (or at least to warn users) that any information they download and/or redistribute may be protected by copyright laws.

Information generated by the federal government most certainly falls in the public domain. Individual states can claim copyright, but information taken from commercial entities (i.e., publishers) by the government for placement in federal databases could be governed by copyright law. For example, I can search the Department of Education's Web site [http://www.ed.gov] for projections of high school attendance; go into the Census Bureau site [http://www.census.gov] to gather teenage population estimates by age and sex; download charts, articles, and press releases; reformat all the information; analyze the data; write an outlook report; and sell my analysis -- all without fear of being sued for copyright violation.

I do not feel comfortable conducting a similar search on Medline, in which I might download all the bibliographic citations and abstracts about teenage health issues (e.g., pregnancy, smoking, HIV, sport-related injuries, etc.), create a subset of the database, add some front matter describing my search strategy, arrange the citations to make it easier for my readers to review the literature, provide a table of contents or index, and sell a "new" product. The issue of redistributing or re-publishing multiple copies makes it a product question, rather than a single usage where searchers act as agents for clients who could legitimately acquire the data themselves if they had the time, talent, or equipment.

My colleagues also dispute statements issued by the government limiting use of public domain databases to "personal use" by private individuals or non-profits. Such statements seem to restrict commercial enterprises -- such as HMOs, hospitals, physicians, or other health professionals working for profit-based organizations --from using federal databases. The reasoning behind these "warnings" is that such entities will use research from tax-supported databases for commercial gain. (Why am I thinking of Texaco?) But so what? Why should a government that lives off the taxes it collects object to its citizens making money?

Many of us know that federal government agencies supported by tax dollars can not claim copyright to the information they generate and distribute within the U.S. Alternatively, I wonder if the federal government could claim...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A20437098