Looking for Censorship in All the Wrong Places

Last week, I stumbled on a tweet by a staff member at the Electronic Frontier Foundation warning California citizens to “take action” in protest against the passage of Assembly Bill 2880.  The linked article on the EFF website written by Ernesto Falcon begins by asserting in its headline, subhead, and first paragraph that California will be venturing into brand new territory with regard to registering or enforcing state-owned intellectual property and that this will have the usual litany of ill effects—“chill speech, stifle open government, and harm the public domain.” Falcon’s first sentence reads, “The California Assembly Committee on Judiciary recently approved a bill (AB 2880) to grant local and state governments’ copyright authority along with other intellectual property rights.”  (Emphasis added.)

It is standard procedure for the EFF to make scary declarations while avoiding specifics. They have a habit of telling people that a proposal will be really bad while shirking the effort of quite explaining how. The organization also tends to focus almost entirely on copyrights when a broader view of IP might be relevant in a given circumstance, as it is with a state, which may have at least as much interest in patents and trademarks as in copyrights.  What Falcon wants the reader to conclude is that AB 2880 will grant new authority to the State of California to copyright works like public records, which would then give elected officials a means of stifling speech by misusing copyright law.  You might recognize this theme as one of the EFF’s Greatest Hits, but of course, this bill does nothing of the sort.

AB 2880 does not establish new IP rights for the State of California.  California and other states have owned intellectual property for a very long time.  A  FY2000 California audit of IP states, “In total, 125 state agencies own more than 113,000 identified items of intellectual property.” What this proposed bill does do is to clarify California’s position on its IP and then requires procedures (e.g. developing guidlines for contractors) to be overseen by the Department of Governmental Services for better management of state-owned intellectual property. A need for clarification in the law is noted in the comments from the State Assembly floor, which cites lessons learned from the widely publicized, 2015 dispute between the National Park Service and the Yosemite National Park concessioner Delaware North.  The floor comments include the following:

”…the lack of a robust intellectual property framework has led to confusion among state agencies, loose and informal practices, and possibly confusion among state and federal courts. Several recent court decisions have held that state agencies need legislative authority to hold intellectual property rights. In light of the recent Yosemite trademark issue and the recent court decisions, this bill builds on the framework established by AB 744 in order to assist state agencies manage and protect the state’s intellectual property rights, particularly in state contracts where state-owned intellectual property is at stake.” 

That’s not exactly spellbinding, but neither the character nor the language in this bill gets anywhere near the EFF’s implication that California agencies will have “new powers” to use copyright law in order to stifle speech or limit access to public records after passage of 2880.  Nevertheless,  Falcon writes, “As things stand today, works created by California state and local governments (like reports, video, maps, and so on) aren’t subject to copyright except in a few special cases. That ensures that Californians who funded the creation of those works through their tax dollars can use those works freely.”

Not quite.  Falcon is purposely being vague in order to have the reader assume that public records will be treated the same as expressive works or other IP that is funded by California taxpayers, especially where third-party contractors are involved.  At the same time, he’s sowing a bit of confusion about the difference between public property and the public domain—as if all works funded by taxpayers are automatically in the public domain, which is not the case.

A work, invention, or process that is in the public domain is no longer property of any kind.  It is entirely fair game for anyone anywhere to use for any purpose.  Public property, on the other hand, is just that; and state agencies have a responsibility to protect the investment of the constituency who paid for the development of the property.  For instance, it is common that public property, whether physical or intellectual, may not be used by a for-profit entity without that entity paying a license fee that goes back to the public fund.  And this is as it should be; the taxpayer isn’t typically expected to fund free resources to be used by for-profit entities without getting something in return.   To manage this, states need an intellectual property regime, and AB 2880 is a rather mundane update to that regime.

On the subject of censorship, Falcon draws our attention to the case in which the City of Inglewood wrongly filed a lawsuit against Joseph Teixeira, who posted city council videos (which are public records) on YouTube in remixes that were critical of the city’s Mayor James Butts.  The lawsuit was, to put it mildly, an act of rank stupidity on the part of city officials, which is pretty much what Federal Court Judge Fitzgerald said when he not only tossed out the case as “meritless,” but also ordered the City of Inglewood to pay the full fees of bringing the case in the first place.

And although Falcon is following the EFF playbook by riling up readers with a reference to this attempted abuse of copyright law, there is nothing in AB 2880 that would newly empower a future state public official to get any further with a federal court than Mayor Butts did.  It should also be noted that nothing in AB 2880—or any other statute for that matter—can fully prevent people from attempting to misuse the law, which is one reason why a judge determines whether or not a case has any standing before it can proceed. If anything, the Teixeria story ought to chasten city and state officials against future temptation to use copyright to stifle speech.

In addition to conflating public property with the public domain, Falcon is purposely mixing public records with other types of works that are copyrightable and is also confusing federal policy with state policy.  It goes without saying that federal public property belongs to all American citizens while state public property belongs to the citizens of that state, but it is not true that all public property in either case is the same thing as the public domain.   Still, Falcon declares that AB 2880 will impose new restrictions on California’s taxpayer-funded works, as if the proposed bill will move these works from the public domain into the protection of copyright. He writes, “… a vast majority of state created works are free to the public with only five exceptions. All other audio, visual, and written work of state and local govenment employees is in the public domain upon creation and free for the public to use however they see fit.”

Again, not quite. The legal precedent to which Falcon’s link refers states that the California Public Records Act “prohibits copyright in state government records unless there is specific statutory authority to do so.”  And this precedent is not overturned by the new language proposed in 2880, which reads as follows:

A public entity may own, license, and, if it deems it appropriate, formally register intellectual property it creates or otherwise acquires. A public entity’s intellectual property right shall not preclude the public entity from disclosing any information otherwise accessible under the California Public Records Act. A disclosure under the California Public Records Act shall not be construed as waiving any rights afforded under the federal Copyright Act of 1976.

All that says is that state agencies may own intellectual property (which was already true), that copyrigths may not preclude public access to public records, and that disclosure of public information does not inherently void the state’s copyrights. Not only does this language not override existing law, it seeks to clarify the law in light of some of the lessons learned from various court cases, as described in the floor comments cited above. Of course it is entirely possible that this clarification is exactly what the EFF doesn’t like about this bill. Clearer copyright laws are the opposite of no copyright laws, and it seems as though that organization is only ever interested in the latter.

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