As more and more governments release data around the world, the conditions under which it is published and may be used will become increasingly important. Just as open formats make data easier to put to work, open licenses make it possible for all members of the public to use it without fear.
Given that wonky but important issue, it’s important that governments that want to maximize the rewards of the work involved in cleaning and publishing open government data get the policy around its release right. Today, several open government advocates have released an updated Best-Practices Language for Making Data “License-Free”, which can found online at at theunitedstates.io/licensing.
“In short what we say is ‘Use Creative Commons Zero (CC0),’ which is a public domain dedication,” said Josh Tauberer, the founder of Govtrack.us, via email. “We provide recommended language to put on government datasets and software to put the data and code into the world-wide public domain. In a way, it’s the opposite of a license.
Tauberer, Eric Mill, developer at the Sunlight Foundation, and Jonathan Gray, director of policy and ideas at the Open Knowledge Foundation, who have been working on the guidance since May, all blogged about the new guidance:
- Updated guidance for federal agencies on open data licensing [Tauberer]
- Making U.S. government data license-free [Mill]
- Signing on to civil society request to make open government data license-free [Gray]
“Back in May, the Administration’s Memorandum on Open Data created very confusing guidance for agencies about what constitutes open data by saying open data should be ‘openly licensed’,” explained Tauberer, via email. “In response to that, we began working on guidance for federal agencies for how to make sure their data in open under the definition in the 8 Principles of Open Government Data.”
The basic issue, he said, is that the memorandum directed agencies to make data open but, in the view of these advocates, told agencies the wrong thing about what open data actually means. “We’re correcting that with precise, actionable direction,” said Tauberer.
What would the consequences of United States government entities not adopting this guidance be?
“Because M-13-13 required open licensing as the new default, I worry about agencies taking the guidance too literally and applying licensing where they might not have before, even if the work is exempt from copyright,” said Tauberer. “Or they may now consider open licensing of works produced by a contractor to be the new norm, since it is permitted by M-13-13, but for certain core information produced by government this would be a major step backward.”
Getting ahead of these kinds of issues is not an abstract issue, similar to concerns about language regarding the “mosaic effect” in the U.S. open data policy.
“Imagine if after FOIA’ing an agency’s deliberative documents, The New York Times was legally required to provide attribution to a contractor, or, worse, to the government itself,” said Tauberer. “The federal government is relying more and more on contractors and lawyers, so it’s important that we reinforce these norms now.”
The language has been endorsed by many of the prominent open government advocates in the world, including the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation, Public Knowledge, The Center for Democracy and Technology, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Free Law Project, the OpenGov Foundation, Carl Malamud at Public.Resource.Org, Jim Harper at WashingtonWatch.com, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and MuckRock News.
While it remains to be seen if the White House Office of Management and Budget merges this best practice into its open data policy, the advocates have already had success getting it adopted.
“Since we first published the guidance in August, it’s led to three government projects using our advice,” said Tauberer. “Partly in response to our nudging, in October 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.) In September and October, The CFPB followed our guidance and applied CC0 to their “qu” project and their eRegs platform.”