Updated Guidance for Federal Agencies’ Open Data Licensing

Eric Mill, Jonathan Gray, and I have updated Best-Practices Language for Making Data “License-Free” which also has a new home at http://theunitedstates.io/licensing/.

We’re also adding a slew of new endorsements, bringing the list to the Sunlight Foundation (read Eric’s blog post), the Open Knowledge Foundation (read their blog post), CDT, EFF (read their blog post), Public Knowledge (read their blog post), the Free Law Project, the OpenGov Foundation, Carl Malamud at Public.Resource.Org, Jim Harper at WashingtonWatch.com, CREW, and MuckRock. Thanks go out to our contacts at all of those organizations and especially to Eric who spearheaded the effort to issue this update.

Redefining “Open”

Our guidance is for federal agencies and is related to the recent open data memo from the White House, M-13-13. That memo directed agencies to make data “open” but told agencies the wrong thing about what open data actually means. We’re correcting that with precise, actionable direction that, to summarize, says “Use CC0.” As we write in our guidance:

It is essential that U.S. federal government agencies have the tools to preserve the United States’ long legal tradition of ensuring that public information created by the federal government is exempt from U.S. copyright and remains free for everyone to use without restriction.

The White House memo opened the possibility that agencies could impose arbitrary licenses (e.g. in the form of terms of use agreements) on government data and still call that data open government data. Or, worse, that the government could copyright data through the backdoor of contract work and still call it open government data. Basically it said open data can be “openly licensed.” In the U.S., where public domain is often the default licensing is a step backward.

Why It Matters

Why does it matter?  Imagine if after FOIA’ing agency deliberative documents The New York Times was legally required to provide attribution to a contractor, or, worse, to the government itself.  If the government doesn’t like the article, maybe they take the Times to court on the grounds that the attribution wasn’t done correctly.  There’s a reason we don’t let our government control access to information.

What We Recommend

In short what we say is “Use Creative Commons Zero” (CC0), which is a public domain dedication. We provide recommended language to put on government datasets and software to put the data and code into the world-wide public domain, which means anyone can use the information without any capricious restriction. In a way, it’s the opposite of a license.

I previously wrote about this in August when we issued the first version of our guidance. Since then, our document has been effective in guiding the use of “open” in three government projects:

  1. OSTP’s Project Open Data re-licensed its schema for federal data catalog inventory files. It had been licensed under CC-BY because of non-governmental contributors to the schema, but now it uses CC0.
  2. CFPB followed our guidance and applied CC0 to their qu project
  3. …and their eRegs platform.

Our advice was also already followed by HHS for its ckanext-datajson project and the Council of the District of Columbia’s Unofficial Code (disclaimer: I was involved in both of those projects already). We’re glad to see that our guidance has already been useful and we hope it continues to be useful as agencies work on compliance with M-13-13.

In this updated version, we cleaned up the suggested legal language, we noted that our recommendations apply equally well to software code as well as to data, and we improved the introductory text, among other changes.

How We Wrote It

The process of updating the guidance was done mostly openly through github. Feel free to open an issue with questions or create a pull request with suggested edits at https://github.com/unitedstates/licensing/issues.


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