Crown attempts to suppress use of public documents

This past summer, the British government attempted to exercise its powers under copyright law to try to suppress, or at least, suppress the basis of, a book critical of the US and British governments actions in Uzbekistan.

The book, written by Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, draws upon several government documents to substantiate the claims it makes. Those government documents were initially posted on the authors website, but in the summer the government threatened Murray to have him remove them. Murray removed them for a while, but then apparently decided not to give in to the threat and re-posted all or most of them. This was an action on Murray's part which is not for the faint of heart, and it should not be necessary in a free and democratic society.

Copyright law in Britain is much the same as here in Canada. Crown copyright exists on any documents the government produces. Hence the government can ultimately control access to any "public" document it creates. This is opposed to the United States where documents created by the government are essentially public domain and the government cannot exercise any control over their dissemination.

Crown Copyright creates serious implications for the bloggers, journalists, and former ambassadors of the world. While most government documents are accessible to anyone via access to information requests, they cannot be shared with the public once they have been acquired. If an author makes an argument, and bases it on the text of a particular document, and the reader then wants to understand the wider context of the premise of the argument, the reader must make his own access to information request to get the document for himself.

Similar abuses of Crown Copyright have already occurred in Canada. Back in 2004 the Federal Government tried to prevent the Law Society of Upper Canada from photocopying rulings of court cases. The issue went to the Supreme Court where it was ruled that such actions are not copyright infringement so long as the copying is "research based and fair". Great for the law society, but it still leaves Joe Public with unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions, and bloggers in a legal grey area.

There have been many calls to reform crown copyright in the past. Unfortunately the government does not listen to the people making these calls, preferring to score political points south of the border by making reforms which are beneficial for the American multinational corporations and there shills such as the CRIA.

Darryl Moore