12 July, 2006: Information wants to be free, but the Foreign Office doesn't

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A brief note on Crown (and other) Copyright and the Freedom of Information Act. Ex-diplomat Craig Murray has been forced to remove from his website a set of official documents related to the events he writes about in his book Murder in Samarkand by government threats to sue. The documents were, apparently, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and (in the case of those which were about Craig himself) the Data Protection Act.

Copyright protection is a general problem with the Freedom of Information Act. The Act gives you the right to request information, but it does not in general give you the right to do any acts restricted by copyright in respect of the information you've got -- for instance, to copy or republish the information. In Craig Murray's case, the government are seeking to prevent publication of the documents, either on the web or in his book; this makes it hard for him to refer to them in making his case.

Now, this hasn't been tested in court yet, and Craig Murray, who unlike the Treasury Solicitors doesn't have a 400 billion per year revenue stream to support his litigation, isn't about to test it. It's possible that the courts would decide that there is a public interest argument for allowing distribution of the documents (and it's interesting that the government has not risked an Official Secrets Act prosecution in his case), but I wouldn't rely on that.

However, to a great extent this doesn't matter. If one person can get hold of documents under the Freedom of Information Act, then so can anybody else, simply by making a request to the relevant public authority. Rather than trying to face down the FCO and its lawyers, a better response would be to draft a fill-in-the-blanks Freedom of Information Request, which anybody could email in to the FCO to get their own copy of the key documents perfectly legally. That's certainly less convenient than simply downloading them off the web -- in particular, most government departments make sure they send responses no earlier than the maximum twenty working days permitted under the Act -- but there's a limit to what the government can do to wriggle out of its obligations. If Craig can provide information identifying each document to be used in such a request, I'll happily build him a website which will allow anybody to send in such a request at the click of a button.

(This doesn't, of course, cover the documents obtained under the Data Protection Act, which creates only a right to see information about yourself. I don't know which of the Murray documents he got under which Act, so I don't know whether this cripples the above suggestion.)


Copyright (c) 2006 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.