Comparing the fine print at the White House and PMO Web sites

Yesterday's inauguration of President Barack Obama also brought with it a complete overhaul of the whitehouse.gov site. While there has been some media coverage of the change (including the appointment of a Director of New Media for the White House), it is worth looking at the fine print by contrasting the copyright notices found on the White House site and the Prime Minister of Canada's site. The Whitehouse.gov site adopts the following:

Pursuant to federal law, government-produced materials appearing on this site are not copyright protected. The United States Government may receive and hold copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.

Except where otherwise noted, third-party content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Visitors to this website agree to grant a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the rest of the world for their submissions to Whitehouse.gov under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

In other words, no copyright in the government-produced materials and a Creative Commons license that permits both commercial and non-commercial usage (with attribution) for third-party materials. That is as permissive as it gets - no real restrictions or requirements to obtain permission, which means that the public has both access and the right to use the materials on the Whitehouse.gov site as they see fit.

Now consider the Prime Minister of Canada's copyright notice:

The material on this site is covered by the provisions of the Copyright Act, by Canadian laws, policies, regulations and international agreements. Such provisions serve to identify the information source and, in specific instances, to prohibit reproduction of materials without written permission.

Information on this site has been posted with the intent that it be readily available for personal and public non-commercial use and may be reproduced, in part or in whole and by any means, without charge or further permission from the Office of the Prime Minister. We ask only that:

  • Users exercise due diligence in ensuring the accuracy of the materials reproduced;
  • The Office of the Prime Minister be identified as the source department; and,
  • The reproduction is not represented as an official version of the materials reproduced, nor as having been made, in affiliation with or with the endorsement of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Reproduction of multiple copies of materials on this site, in whole or in part, for the purposes of commercial redistribution is prohibited except with written permission from the Government of Canada's copyright administrator, Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC).

While this is better than some other Canadian government departments (who require permission for all uses), it is still not good enough. First, Canada should drop crown copyright so that there is no copyright in government-produced materials. Second, there is no need for a distinction between commercial and non-commercial - Canadians should be free to use the government-produced materials for either purpose without permission. Third, third-party materials, which are Creative Commons licensed in the U.S., are subject to full restrictions in Canada. Admittedly few people take the time to read these terms and conditions, yet they send a message about the openness, transparency, and a commitment to public engagement with government. The White House has changed its approach and now the Prime Minister should do the same.

Michael Geist is a law professor and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa.

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