October 19, 2005
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
We are in receipt of your July 12, 2005 request for an advisory opinion concerning public access to individual achievement test answers generated by your son, a sixth grade student in the Webutuck Central School District.
It is our understanding based on the materials you have provided that the District has denied access to a manual outlining administration guidelines for the achievement test, and has refused to provide copies of your son’s test answer booklets, based on their assertion that the booklets are copyright protected, however, the District has offered to allow you to review the test answer booklets upon appointment.
First, with respect to the ability of a citizen to use an access law to assert the right to reproduce copyrighted material, the issue has been considered by the U.S. Department of Justice with respect to copyrighted materials, and its analysis as it pertains to the federal Freedom of Information Act is, in our view, pertinent to the issue as it arises under the state Freedom of Information Law.
The initial aspect of its review involved whether the exception to rights of access analogous to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law requires that copyrighted materials be withheld. The cited provision states that an agency may withhold records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." Virtually the same language constitutes a basis for withholding in the federal Act [5 U.S.C. 552(b)(3)]. In the fall 1983 edition of FOIA Update, a publication of the Office of Information and Privacy at the U.S. Department of Justice, it was stated that:
"On its face, the Copyright Act simply cannot be considered a 'nondisclosure' statute, especially in light of its provision permitting full public inspection of registered copyrighted documents at the Copyright Office [see 17 U.S.C. 3705(b)]."
Since copyrighted materials are available for inspection, we agree with the conclusion that records bearing a copyright could not be characterized as being "specifically exempted from disclosure...by...statute."
The next step of the analysis involves the Justice Department's consideration of the federal Act's exception (exemption 4) analogous to §87(2)(d) of the Freedom of Information Law in conjunction with 17 U.S.C. §107, which codifies the doctrine of "fair use". Section 87(2)(d) permits an agency to withhold records that "are trade secrets or are submitted to an agency by a commercial enterprise or derived from information obtained from a commercial enterprise and which if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise." Under §107, copyrighted work may be reproduced "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" without infringement of the copyright. Further, the provision describes the factors to be considered in determining whether a work may be reproduced for a fair use, including "the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work" [17 U.S.C. §107(4)].
According to the Department of Justice, the most common basis for the assertion of the federal Act's "trade secret" exception involves "a showing of competitive harm," and in the context of a request for a copyrighted work, the exception may be invoked "whenever it is determined that the copyright holder's market for his work would be adversely affected by FOIA disclosure" (FOIA Update, supra). As such, it was concluded that the trade secret exception:
"stands as a viable means of protecting commercially valuable copyrighted works where FOIA disclosure would have a substantial adverse effect on the copyright holder's potential market. Such use of Exemption 4 is fully consonant with its broad purpose of protecting the commercial interests of those who submit information to government... Moreover, as has been suggested, where FOIA disclosure would have an adverse impact on 'the potential market for or value of [a] copyrighted work,' 17 U.S.C. §107(4), Exemption 4 and the Copyright Act actually embody virtually congruent protection, because such an adverse economic effect will almost always preclude a 'fair use' copyright defense...Thus, Exemption 4 should protect such materials in the same instances in which copyright infringement would be found" (id.).
In our opinion, due to the similarities between the federal Freedom of Information Act and the New York Freedom of Information Law, the analysis by the Justice Department may properly be applied when making determinations regarding the reproduction of copyrighted materials maintained by entities of government in New York. In sum, if reproduction of copyrighted material would "cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise," i.e., the holder of the copyright, in conjunction with §87(2)(d) of the Freedom of Information Law, it would appear that an agency could preclude reproduction of the work. Because the manual and test booklets are disclosed to numerous persons, including students, teachers, administrators and others, it is our view that there is no basis for denying a request to inspect or copy these documents.
At your request, and in an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, we will forward a copy of this opinion to the Superintendent of the Webutuck Central School District, as well as the Board of Education.
I hope that this is helpful. Should you have any further questions, please contact me directly.
Camille S. Jobin-Davis
cc: Dr. Richard N. Johns, Superintendent
Board of Education