City of New York v GeoData Plus – Copyright, Tax Maps, and Public Access


Although this was posted October 22, 2007, I thought the following posting from the Cairns Blog case might be of interest:

Feeding Bureaucracy While Starving Democracy: Government Abuse of Copyright


At the end of September, the federal court in the Eastern District of New York handed down a ruling in the case of City of New York v. Geodata Plus, LLC.  The judge’s order granting in part the City’s motion for summary judgment upheld the City’s assertion of copyright in digitized tax maps.  In so doing the ruling allows the City to use that copyright to restrict availability of politically important information paid for by taxpayer dollars.  This information should, instead, be deemed to be information in the public domain.  Alternatively, if the City objected to GeoData’s attempt to earn money based on re-use of the City’s tax maps, then it should have released the digitized maps under an open license mandating that the maps be freely re-distributable.  Instead the City wasted public resources on filing suit in federal court.  Releasing under an open license would not preclude the City’s Department of City Planning (DCP) from charging for the digitized files and it would prevent others from monopolizing access to the data.  The City bureaucracy is using copyright law to restrict free speech and limit democracy by making public information less available.


In 1995, the DCP developed vectorized images of tax block and lot information.  It sells these digital files for $250 per borough.  To create the maps the DCP programmers took publicly available maps, digitized them and then “traced” the outlines of each of the tax lots from the tax maps onto the geographic maps.  GeoData sells a commercial product that includes vectorized tax lot and block maps.  GeoData asserted that the City’s map were not copyrightable and, if they were, then, in the alternative, they argued that they had not copied but had developed their maps independently.


Whether or not GeoData or its Kyrgyzstanian programmers copied is not what’s at stake here.  The focus on copying is a red herring that distracts from the central question of this case: Should a government be allowed to restrict access to public information paid for by tax payers dollars and of vital interest to the citizens that the government serves?


Source: Cairns Blog, October 22, 2007


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