In Canada, it seems like any discussion of copyright quickly turns to the merits or demerits of mp3s, file sharing, PVRs and similar high-technology issues. Yet there is one element of Canadian copyright law that is seldom talked about and would likely shock our neighbours to the south: Crown copyright.
Copyright to every document prepared or published by the federal government is owned by Her Majesty. This grants the Crown – in practice, the government of the day – exclusive rights to produce or reproduce the work in any form, as well as exclusive rights to performance and translation. Without prior permission, citizens are severely limited in their ability to reproduce or modify the work; “fair dealing” provides exemptions from copyright for purposes of private study, news reporting, criticism and review, but these are limited.
Under Crown copyright, if an organization assisting new citizens would like to translate a government publication into another language, it must submit its proposed translation for approval to Crown Copyright and Licensing. Fair dealing allows a newspaper to publish a short excerpt of a government document, but anything longer requires a license. Crown copyright also poses an obstacle for the open data movement; the Crown copyright status of Canadian government data can prevent the reuse, remixing and redistribution of that data by citizens.
Some Canadian governments and departments have begun to relax Crown copyright by providing automatic licenses. The Queen’s Printer of Ontario, which owns the copyright to documents created by the Government of Ontario, provides a blanket license for non-commercial use of materials posted to Ontario websites, provided that proper acknowledgements are made. The Government of Yukon website is governed by a similar non-commercial license. Through its GeoGratis program, Natural Resources Canada provides an automatic license for geospatial data that allows virtually restriction-free use by third parties, including commercial users. The cities of Toronto and Vancouver use identical licenses for their open data sets, which permit any lawful use of the data.
Commonwealth nations around the world are also taking innovative approaches to Crown copyright. The U.K.’s open data initiative, data.gov.uk, uses a permissive license that allows data to be analyzed, mashed-up, and republished, for non-commercial or commercial purposes. The U.K. also waives Crown copyright on certain categories of documents, such as government press releases, published scientific papers and website materials.
New Zealand’s State Services Commission recently produced a draft framework on open access and licensing. This framework recommends the use of a very permissive license, which requires only attribution that the source of the document is the Government of New Zealand. Provided that attribution is given, any modification, reuse or commercialization of the content is permitted.
Why would Crown copyright shock our American neighbours? Aside from a reminder that not everyone has experienced the excitement of a revolution, it would come as a surprise to citizens accustomed to a government that is generally unable to copyright its documents. There is no Presidential or Congressional equivalent to Crown copyright; government documents and data are in the public domain, meaning there are no restrictions on commercial or non-commercial reproduction, redistribution or modification.
Americans are free to print government documents and distribute them around their community. They are free to create an iPhone app that uses stimulus funding data and Google Maps to direct citizens to stimulus projects in their community. They are free to compile government documents from many different departments’ archives, put them on a CD, and sell the product to researchers who lack the time to compile the documents themselves.
Canada is unlikely to adopt an American-style system of putting documents directly into the public domain any time soon. And many would argue that Crown copyright does have its uses, such as creating licenses that require users to provide a URL to the original source of the information. That being said, Canadian governments should recognize that by allowing the use and reuse of publications, citizens can provide value to themselves, their fellow citizens, governments, and the economy.
Brent Barron, a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Toronto, recently interned in the Ontario Public Service. He is co-editor of the Public Policy and Governance Review.