UI raises copyright concern in records case

By Jason Clayworth
Des Moines Register

The rare argument, if successful, could not only impede Krejci’s effort to raise public awareness of the disaster but also dismantle the state’s public records law, government transparency experts claim.

“It’s just bizarre,” said Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a First Amendment advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “It can’t be the case that copyright law enables every state entity to withhold every single record they generate. That would totally eviscerate the public records laws.”

The university claims a federal copyright law protects the creative works of its staff, superseding the state’s public records law that for decades has specifically given the legal right to publish and disseminate public records.

It remains unclear how “creative works” is defined by the university. But the university’s argument, if successful and broadly applied, could make it illegal to reproduce virtually any Iowa government record without explicit permission. That includes anything from pictures to contracts to meeting notices, critics warn.

The university and the Iowa Board of Regents have declined to answer questions about the matter. Regents spokesman Josh Lehman cited ongoing legal issues related to Krejci’s complaint.

But in a written response to the complaint the university cites a 2001 New York court ruling to justify its stand. That ruling gave a county government the right to retain copyright protection of its tax maps.

Public records show neither Iowa State University nor the University of Northern Iowa have claimed copyright to deny public records for at least three years. UI has cited copyright protection at least four times during that period.

Kathleen Richardson, the dean of Drake University’s journalism program, said governments claiming copyright protection, while rare, is becoming more common. New technology allows the public to harvest massive amounts of data and some government officials want to curb for-profit services from capitalizing on the records by selling that information or using it to solicit business, she said.

“I certainly think this goes against the intent of the public records law,” Richardson said. “This might very well be another instance where the Legislature might want to act to address an issue that’s come up because of changing technology.”

Krejci says he does not expect to profit from the flood film project, which he hopes will help preserve the history of the event. He said he’s baffled by the university’s response, noting that much of the footage is already published online.

Tim Zarley, a Des Moines attorney who specializes in copyright law, said he believes the university does own copyright of the video. He said how that material is used could influence whether copyright overrides the state’s public records law.

“You’re talking about public disclosure versus the actual copying of material,” Zarley said. “If you’re talking about a video to be shown on the news, that might be different than a person or business. I think that could make a difference.”