Copyright and Tax Assessment Maps


The following copyright case took place earlier this year. The plaintiff in the case agreed to cancel the hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction, leaving Seneca’s web site – with its freely available maps – in place. But, it’s still noteworthy.

W. Virginia Assessor Fights Effort To Put Tax Maps Online

By Ryan Paul | Published: February 07, 2008

The official tax assessor of Kanawha County in West Virginia, Phyllis Gatson, has filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to block Seneca Technologies from publishing tax maps for the entire state of West Virginia on the Internet. Citing a state law which prohibits individuals from copying and redistributing tax maps without the county tax assessor’s permission, one that also enables tax assessors to sell paper copies of the maps for approximately $8 each, Gatson asserts that Seneca’s actions constitute copyright infringement and have caused her to suffer financial damages.

Seneca, a document indexing and data management company, began its quest to obtain tax maps for all of West Virginia last year by sending a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the state tax department, which has digital copies of all of the tax maps for internal use. When the state declined to fulfill the FOIA request and insisted that Seneca pay $8 for each of the 20,936 TIF images (a total of $167,488), the company filed a lawsuit to force the agency to comply with its obligations under the FOIA. The Judge ruled in favor of Seneca, noting that the state law requiring payment applied only to paper maps and not digital copies. The tax department was forced to provide the entire collection of maps for a single payment of $20 to compensate it for the total reproduction costs.

After obtaining the maps, Seneca then made them available for free on the Internet through its own web site so that they could be accessed by the general public. Seneca plans to use its document indexing technologies to create an elaborate search system that makes it easy for users to correlate information from the tax maps with other data stored in Seneca’s databases. Gatson, an individual county tax assessor, responded to Seneca’s plans by filing a lawsuit in an effort to win an injunction that would force Seneca to take down the TIF images. …

For full text of the article, visit: W. Virginia assessor fights effort to put tax maps online

Source: Ars Technica

Commentary on Court Case


Patry’s Copyright Blog provides an interesting commentary on this case on Feburary 6, 2008.


Section 105 of title 17 USC prohibits copyright in works of the United States government, but does not bar works of state and local governments. Under case law, state court decisions and statutes have been held not protectible, but the rationales for these decisions do not apply to other material, like maps. Of course, states may decide as a matter of state law that given material may not be subject to copyright (a decision akin to abandonment), and states may pass FOIA or similar laws that severely circumscribe the exercise of copyright. But the question of originality of state authored material is governed by federal copyright law. …


For full text of this article, visit: State and Local Tax Assessment Maps


Further reading


First Amendment Protects West Virginia Web Site Operator Who Posted Public Records (Public Citizen)


West Virginia Tax Official Tries To Stop Web site From Posting Public Tax Maps (TechDirt)


West Virginia Officials Try o Yank Tax Maps Off Website? (The FOI Advocate Blog, February 23, 2008)



Additional Resources


Tax Map Advisory Committee, W.V. GIS Technical Center – Documents related to the Seneca case as well as links to resources for creating new tax map rules


Harlan Onsrud – Commentary on Open Access and Cost Recovery


Illinois Attorney General’s Office


NCGIA Core Cirriculum


Massachusetts Legal Issues for Tax Maps


New York Data Coordination


10 Ways to Support GIS Without Selling Data



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