May 25, 2006
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter in which you wrote that the City of White Plains has adopted the NYS Building Code. Although you indicate that you want to "make copies available, along with other local ordinances" on [your] website, you wrote that the Department of State has informed you that the State Building Code is copyrighted and, in your words, not available for free online. In addition, you attached a notice issued by the City of White Plains indicating that:
"The fee for a requested search of official records maintained by the Department of Building, limited to Certificates of Occupancy, legal occupancy determinations, notices of violations, etc. shall be as follows:
(I) For one or two family dwellings and vacant lots; eight ($8.00) per location.
(II) For all other types of occupancies an uses; twenty ($20.00) per location.
(III) Additional fees shall be charged for requested copies of records."
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, with respect to the ability of a person to use an access law to assert the right to reproduce copyrighted materials, the issue has been considered by the U.S. Department of Justice with respect to those 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.
I note, too, that reproduction of a minimal aspect of a copyrighted work generally involves a "fair use." When copyrighted materials are obtained for a fair use, I do not believe that there can be a limitation or restriction on their dissemination.
Next, with respect to fees, §87(1)(b)(iii) of the Freedom of Information Law stated until October 15, 1982, that an agency could charge up to twenty-five cents per photocopy or the actual cost of reproduction unless a different fee was prescribed by "law". Chapter 73 of the Laws of 1982 replaced the word "law" with the term "statute". As described in the Committee's fourth annual report to the Governor and the Legislature of the Freedom of Information Law, which was submitted in December of 1981 and which recommended the amendment that is now law:
"The problem is that the term 'law' may include regulations, local laws, or ordinances, for example. As such, state agencies by means of regulation or municipalities by means of local law may and in some instances have established fees in excess of twenty-five cents per photocopy, thereby resulting in constructive denials of access. To remove this problem, the word 'law' should be replaced by 'statute', thereby enabling an agency to charge more than twenty-five cents only in situations in which an act of the State Legislature, a statute, so specifies."
Therefore, prior to October 15, 1982, a local law, an ordinance, or a regulation for instance, establishing a search fee or a fee in excess of twenty-five cents per photocopy or higher than the actual cost of reproduction was valid. However, under the amendment, only an act of the State Legislature, a statute, would in my view permit the assessment of a fee higher than twenty-five cents per photocopy, a fee that exceeds the actual cost of reproducing records that cannot be photocopied, (i.e., electronic information), or any other fee, such as a fee for search or overhead costs. In addition, it has been confirmed judicially that fees inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Law may be validly charged only when the authority to do so is conferred by a statute [see Gandin, Schotsky & Rappaport v. Suffolk County, 640 NYS 2d 214, 226 AD 2d 339 (1996); Sheehan v. City of Syracuse, 521 NYS 2d 207 (1987)].
Further, the specific language of the Freedom of Information Law and the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government indicate that, absent statutory authority, an agency may charge fees only for the reproduction of records. Section 87(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law states:
"Each agency shall promulgate rules and regulations in conformance with this article...and pursuant to such general rules and regulations as may be promulgated by the committee on open government in conformity with the provisions of this article, pertaining to the availability of records and procedures to be followed, including, but not limited to...
(iii) the fees for copies of records which shall not exceed twenty-five cents per photocopy not in excess of nine by fourteen inches, or the actual cost of reproducing any other record, except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute."
The regulations promulgated by the Committee state in relevant part that:
"Except when a different fee is otherwise prescribed by statute:
(a) There shall be no fee charged for the following:
(1) inspection of records;
(2) search for records; or
(3) any certification pursuant to this Part" (21 NYCRR 1401.8)."
Based upon the foregoing, it is clear that an agency cannot charge a search fee, and that a fee for reproducing electronic information would involve the cost of computer time, plus the cost of an information storage medium (i.e., a computer tape or disk) to which data is transferred.
Lastly, although compliance with the Freedom of Information Law involves the use of public employees' time and perhaps other costs, the Court of Appeals has found that the Law is not intended to be given effect "on a cost-accounting basis", but rather that "Meeting the public's legitimate right of access to information concerning government is fulfillment of a governmental obligation, not the gift of, or waste of, public funds" [Doolan v. BOCES, 48 NY 2d 341, 347 (1979)].
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Michael A. Gismondi