Modernise data publishing and reuse (draft)


Right of re-use

Consistent, comprehensible rights to reuse information from public bodies

‘ protect individual liberty we should have the freest possible flow of information between government and the people…Public information does not belong to Government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted.’

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister, Liberty Speech 29 October 2007

‘..Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. ..Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.’

President Barack Obama, Presidential Memorandum 21 January 2009

Yochai Benkler put the economic case in favour of this approach in the Wealth of Networks. It has since been expanded on in Government and the Invisible Hand. MySociety in the UK and the Sunlight Foundation in the United States of America demonstrate practical applications.

The entries to the Show Us a Better Way competition run by the Taskforce illustrated many new ways of reusing public information to support or enhance public services. The Taskforce was pleased that our original competition model was duplicated in America by Apps for Democracy, which generated further good ideas.  However, much of the information innovators sought in the UK was held not by central government but by organisations in the wider public sector – particularly local authorities, police forces, schools, the Post Office and the National Health Service.  This information is not easy to access, impeding innovation, economic activity and democratic expression.

There are two inter-related issues: consistency of licensing and availability of information.

Consistency of licensing

For information held by central government the provisions of Crown Copyright apply.  Crown Copyright is often misunderstood, and we make recommendation on that elsewhere in the report.  But Crown Copyright has the advantage of being a consistent framework for licencing developed by experts after widespread consultation. Public bodies that are not part of central government are not covered by Crown Copyright by default.  Instead there are a wide range of copyright, licensing and re-use rules for published information.

There are significant variations in licensing even within the same part of the public sector. For instance, while working with the Home Office on crime mapping, the Taskforce found ‘dead end’ copyright notices on some police websites (such as this in Northants) with no apparent provision for reuse and more permissive statements on others (such as this in the Met). So a potential reuser of crime information faces over forty different copyright policies.

This inhibits innovation, reuse and debate of vital public information such as crime statistics.  Inconsistency in licensing is a particular inhibitor of economic activity – SMEs seeking to reuse the information as part of a business need unambiguous intellectual property clearance – several complained to the Taskforce. Clear re-use policies can also be important for people seeking to re-use public information to lobby public bodies for better public services.

Individual police forces, hospitals, schools and councils can each set their own copyright policy on the information they publish.  Our experience in talking with data owners is that copyright policy often arises not from a detailed assessment of the different options but from best efforts by staff who lack access to expert advice or effective guidance. One typical response from a senior local government officer was:

‘I spoke with the web manager – she said she put the © symbol on when the website was published some years ago because she thought that we had better have something just in case.  She isn’t a copyright expert after all.’

There are contrasting examples of good practice: Essex and Warwickshire Councils for instance have signing up to the OPSI Information Fair Trader Scheme.  We make recommendations elsewhere about how good practice in local government can be encouraged.

Availability of information

Inconsistent licensing and reuse policies reflects an historically weak policy on information release in the wider public sector.  This has been due to the limited scope of the European Public Sector Information Directive, which does not apply to public sector bodies such as the police or health authorities.  The Advisory Panel on Public Information, in its letter to Michael Wills, the Minister for public information at the Ministry of Justice, said:

‘The availability of PSI from UK Public Sector Bodies (PSBs) that can be used for wider purposes is not mandatory in the Directive or the UK Regulations. This ensures that inconvenient requests to use PSI can simply be parked. We believe that some form of guaranteed right of access and use (subject to limited exceptions, such as personal information) is essential to encourage the widespread exploitation of PSI. This need not be expensive since – as we argue in the report – many potential users would take the responsibility for adding value to information provided in an ‘as is’ state.’

The Directive does not prevent member state governments going beyond its provisions to apply reuse rules more widely. Indeed the Taskforce understands that now the Commission would encourage governments to do so. The Taskforce judges that there is a case for the government to do so in the UK.

We have also been concerned to find some examples where information of great potential value for the achievement of public policy objectives is not available for re-use. Departments are not always operating within the government’s policy framework, which says that core information is made available for re-use free of charge, including for commercial purposes. This appears to be a particularly significant issue in the transport sector where services are run by private operators.  We found that the National Public Transport Data Repository, described itself as ‘Crown Copyright’.  However, investigations showed this database is not actually public sector data and that the NPTDR charges significant fees for use.

The National Public Transport Access Node (NaPTAN) database, of the bus stops, coach stations, airports, ferry terminals etc and the related National Public Transport Gazetteer, a topographic database of towns and settlements, are both Crown databases, but are not freely available for commercial re-use. The Taskforce has found it hard to reconcile these arrangements with the Government’s overall licensing policy.

In order to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision set out in his Liberty speech, the Taskforce judges that there should be a presumption in favour of information which has been created by public sector bodies being available for re-use.  We would also like to see clear and consistent copyright and licensing rules applied to make it easy to work with data from multiple sources in the public sector.  This would be a radical extension of easy information reuse, stimulating innovation, economic activity and holding public bodies better to account for the services they deliver.


  • Government should ensure that there is a uniform system of release and licensing applied across all public bodies; individual public bodies should not develop or vary the standard terms for their sector.
  • The system should be a creative commons style approach, using a highly permissive licensing scheme that is transparent, easy to understand and easy to use, modelled on the ‘Click Use’ licence, subject to the caveats below
  • The Government should report on the options for these two recommendations by end 2009 and if required, statutory measures should be brought forward not later than the 2009/2010 session.

RSS feed of comments 14 Responses to “Right of re-use”

  1. Great to see this issue being tackled. Your examples perfectly illustrate that the subject is just too complicated – for users and equally for producers. In my own work, it’s often impossible to find anyone able – and confident enough – to answer copyright questions definitively.

  2. Jeni Tennison says:

    ED: 3rd paragraph of “Availability of information” section, ‘appply’ should be ‘apply’.

    MODERATOR NOTE – thanks, now corrected.

  3. Jeni Tennison says:

    This is all good, but I think the recommendation to take a “creative commons style approach” should be expanded on (particularly for readers who might be unfamiliar with it).

    To me, there are several characteristics that make creative commons useful, and that you could call out:

    * clarity in the expression of the licensing terms and conditions (less legalese)
    * clarity in the expression of the use of the license for a particular resource (the use of logos)
    * the ease of use of CC’ed resources; for example, there’s no need to register
    * the simple commonality of it, which breeds familiarity

    It’s not clear in the recommendations which of these aspects of creative commons licensing, and which of the aspects of the ‘Click Use’ licence, the Taskforce believes should be followed.

  4. John Darlington says:

    I agree that the big issues are being tackled but I would like to see some one of the recommendations being a simple and immediate ACTION. We need a set of simple practises. For example government sites have lots of useful lists of non personal information. Too often they hide it behind a search form and not let you re-use the full list. A good example of providing the list is

  5. John Darlington says:

    My previous comment was not intended to be about the mechanism which can be discussed in other parts of this report but that the right of re-use should be enacted quickly by a right to re-use any lists of published information and a way to escalate government sites that keep them hidden away behind restrictive search interfaces, etc.

  6. Tony Hirst says:

    Why not apply a straightforward “open” license *by default* to all public body websites/data and then require site owners to explicitly take action to license materials in other, more restrictive, ways?
    Setting up watchlists on content licensed more restrictively would also allow people to track what was NOT being made available more easily?

  7. Tony Hirst says:

    Re: reuse – making content available in portable formats offers – I suggest – an implied license to reuse that content; so for example, making data available in csv files (or via online spreadsheets with associated charting tools etc) implies that users can manipulate and chart that data. HMG needn’t run these services. For example, the online storage service have partnerships with online office application developers that allow box users to open files in a browser using those online services directly. If you make it easy for people to do things, they assume the license lets them do it?

  8. Steph Gray says:

    Once the process is agreed, simply issuing clear and practical guidance to those responsible for web publishing across government (perhaps with a link to an online, 1 page, no-registration licence as GPL/CC does) would make a big difference.

  9. Sebastian Crump says:

    Typo – governrment -> government just before ‘availability of information’ subheading.

    Agree with all this, but wonder whether it should be more ambitious?

    One of the major issues seems to be confusion around the ‘compatibility’ of Crown Copyright with CC and GPL. Certainly producers need to know what freedoms they have regarding whether (or not!) to apply copyright. GPL requries you to redistribute any changed code under GPL so seemingly incompatible for crown to work on open source code and redistribute under GPL/Crown jointly – is Crown essential or can it be dropped where necessary. Similarly for publishing on other peoples systems that allow for CC? Quickly becomes a huge legal headache that producers are not really supported.

    MODERATOR NOTE – thanks, typo corrected.

  10. Paul Walk says:

    Typo: ‘govenrment’ in 1st paragraph under ‘Consistency of licensing’

    MODERATOR: Thanks for pointing this out. Now fixed.

  11. Tony Hirst says:

    If data is made available in particular ways – for example,making documents available via embeddable widgets (such as documents shared on scribd or slideshare, or videos shared on Youtube) there is an implication – at least as far as the user goes – that they can republish that data through embedding (or more generally, “trasnclusion”).

    Similarly, by making data available via csv files, or via online spreadsheets, there is an implication that the user can take that data, analyse, visualise it, and so on;

    And by making content available via an API there is an implication that developers that access that content and then try to do interesting things with it.

    Despite being unproven, the Creative Commons badge that appears on many content sights provides a ‘glanceable license’ regarding how content could use. A similar graphical device (such as high contrast Crown Copyright badge reminiscent of the Creative Commons badge) could be used on public body websites to let people skimming a page see whether it looks as if “it should be okay to use this stuff because there’s the logo…”

  12. Phil McAllister says:

    I would like to offer up raw statistical data for others to mine or visualise however they see fit, for instance using tools such as

    Might it be worth considering that whenever data is released into the wild that we ask that redistributors provide a link to the original page holding the data? Then when someone comes across UK Gov data on a third-party site, they will know where to go for the up-to-date data sets. Similar to the requirement that anyone who uses BBC Backstage data tags the resulting work ‘Powered by BBC Backstage’ .

    Conversely, where someone has developed an interesting use of our data, we should link out to their implementation – being mindful of the amount of traffic we send their way. Alternatively, work with the developers to implement a version of their idea on the UK Gov infrastructure. May need a Rapid Application Development platform and coding team to fully realise.

  13. Barry Tennison says:

    I strongly support something along the lines of this section. A careful (legal) study should be made to make the copyright and licensing of PSI (for reuse) as liberal as possible. This is certainly a place where we can go much further than the “European minimum”. Note that there are variant versions of Creative Commons licenses, and some are quite restrictive.

  14. Ed Parsons says:

    There is a fundamental point here, that publishers should be expected to distribute their information using multiple channels. The value of API’s is that they allow 3rd parties to repurpose information for different applications or platforms (mobile for example)

    There is a problem where organisations have made major investments in providing portals or websites which are currently the only source of information.

    For example public transport information in London is only available from the Transport for London website, some innovative applications have been built to provide access to the same information on mobile phones for example, but these have to be unofficial.

    Such information could be provided more economically via an api or standard data feeds for third party use.