Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


Crown Copyright: time for an end?

In this week’s Guardian Technology we ask whether it’s time to end crown copyright. Time to take the jewels from the crown? examines the knotty question:

We argue that the UK government should follow the US in making all raw taxpayer-funded data available to the knowledge economy – except where that data compromises personal privacy or national security.

Some of our supporters say that a short cut to this state of affairs would be to abolish crown copyright itself. The idea is worth examining. Abolition was last floated in 1998, as part of a series of examinations in to what the government should do with its publishing arm, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. A green paper, Crown Copyright in the Information Age (http://www.opsi.gov.uk/advice/crown-copyright

/crown-copyright-in-the-information-age.pdf, 273KB PDF), proposed abolition as one of seven options for crown copyright.

In the public consultation that followed, abolition emerged as the most popular. From 70 responses received, abolition received 12 votes as preferred choice. The runner-up (retaining copyright but in a simpler form) received eight votes. The snag was that although abolition was the most popular response, it was also the least popular, receiving the largest number of “unacceptable” votes.

Faced with this polarised response, the government chose compromise. In 1999, the Cabinet Office found a “general consensus” in favour of retaining copyright, with simplified procedures for re-use.

There are arguments for and against crown copyright – certainly, the one that we hear from ministers is that it would mean you could be sure that something did originate where it claims to have done. (A hash on the original data could be followed through and computed on subsequent data to check its origin, for example.)

But the problem with crown copyright as it stands, and more importantly as it’s used, is that it’s used to restrict. That’s what copyright was used to do originally (over the Bible: see the introduction given at the RSA/Free Our Data debate – transcript, as PDF – last year by David Vaver of the Oxford Intellectual Property Group) and still is. Even the word itself has that ring. Maybe we need a different word.

Bonus link: Wikipedia’s page on crown copyright

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