WIREdata Court Case – Implications for Geospatial Data


The Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office just published ” WIREdata and its implications for WI geospatial data”. For the full text of the article visit the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Website:  http://www.sco.wisc.edu/pubs/WIREdata_and_its_implications_for_WI_geospatial_data_2009.pdf

Prior GeoData Policy blog postings on WIREdata: https://geodatapolicy.wordpress.com/2008/06/26/wi-supreme-court-decision-on-wiredata/?preview=true&preview_id=62&preview_nonce=5452d22b1c

A synopsis of the WIREdata article can be found below:

In Brief: “WIREdata and its implications for WI geospatial data” by Lea Shanley, Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office

On June 25, 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an opinion in WIREdata Inc. v. Village of Sussex (2008 WI 69), after nearly seven years of litigation between WIREdata, Inc. and the villages of Sussex and Thiensville, and the city of Port Washington. This litigation touches on Wisconsin state open records law and its application to electronic databases. Specifically, the Court considered the scope, timing, and procedure for making open records requests, as well as the cost and format of the electronic records requested and the authorities responsible for responding to these requests. This article summarizes the WIREdata case, and highlights the potential impact of this decision on access to electronic land information systems (LIS) and geographic information system (GIS) datasets in Wisconsin.

In its published opinion, the Wisconsin Supreme Court acknowledged, but did not revisit the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s opinion, which held that federal copyright law did not prevent open records law access to public agencies’ property assessment data. The Seventh Circuit’s ruling underscores the idea that copyright in electronic databases, such as LIS/GIS datasets, resides in the small amount of originality required for the “selection, coordination, or arrangement” of the data, and not in the factual data themselves (Onsrud, 2004). Notably, in a subsequent case, the Seventh Circuit also ordered one of the plaintiffs – Assessment Technologies – to pay WIREdata more than $91,000 in attorney’s fees for pursuing a copyright infringement suit with little merit.

The Supreme Court instead focused its attention on Wisconsin open records law issues. First, the Court held that a public agency – not its independent contractor vendor – is the statutorily defined “authority” responsible for responding to open records requests.  Second, the Court held that a public agency may not evade its responsibilities under open records law by hiring private vendors to create and maintain their property assessment records and then by re-directing requests for agency records to those vendors who maintain them. This is a very important holding given that many agencies in Wisconsin and throughout the country are similarly delegating these functions to private vendors.  The WIREdata decision does not prohibit this practice; but, under this ruling, public agencies will need to make appropriate arrangements with their vendors for the provision of records necessary to respond to open records requests.

Third, the Court stated that while a public agency may recoup its “actual, necessary and direct costs of reproduction,” it cannot generate revenue through open records requests. Furthermore, as stated in the WI Department of Justice’s 2008 Public Records Law Compliance Outline, “[a]n offer of compliance, but conditioned on unauthorized costs and terms, constitutes a denial” of an open records request. WIREdata, Inc. v. Vill. of Sussex 2007 WI App 22, ¶ 57, 298 Wis. 2d 743, ¶ 57, 729 N.W.2d 757, ¶ 57. In light of the WIREdata decision, public agencies may wish to consult with their attorneys in order to determine whether their geospatial database constitutes a “record,” as defined by Wis. Stat. §19.32 (2), that is subject to open records requests.[1]

Fourth, the Court ruled that the municipalities had satisfied WIREdata’s initial open records requests by providing electronic portable document files (PDFs) of the property assessment data. This holding, however, was based on the wording of WIREdata’s initial request for an “electronic/digital copy,” which was broad enough to encompass the PDF format; it did not address whether providing a PDF would satisfy a more specific request, such as for “enhanced” comma delimited copy of data, or for a copy of a searchable database, such as a GIS data set.

[1] “ “Record” means any material on which written, drawn, printed, spoken, visual or electromagnetic information is recorded or preserved, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which has been created or is being kept by an authority. “Record” includes, but is not limited to, handwritten, typed or printed pages, maps, charts, photographs, films, recordings, tapes (including computer tapes), computer printouts and optical disks. “Record” does not include drafts, notes, preliminary computations and like materials prepared for the originators personal use or prepared by the originator in the name of a person for whom the originator is working; materials which are purely the personal property of the custodian and have no relation to his or her office; materials to which access is limited by copyright, patent or bequest; and published materials in the possession of an authority other than a public library which are available for sale, or which are available for inspection at a public library (Wis. Stat. §19.32 (2) ).”


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