Update on Sierra Club vs. Orange County Court Case
In our book on GIS and Public Domain Data, we describe several court cases that illustrate the ongoing debates and ways of thinking about the value of public domain spatial data, who should pay for it, and who should have access to it. One of the most famous cases is that of the Sierra Club vs. Orange County California. To recap, the Sierra Club is suing Orange County for access to its GIS-compatible digital parcel basemap database under terms of the California Public Records Act that include paying no more than the direct cost of duplication. Orange County has been requiring users of its “OC Landbase” to pay USD $475,000, plus sign a license that restricts sharing or redistribution of its database.
Although Orange County abruptly reduced its price late in December 2011, the case has been going on since 2009. At stake is whether the public has unfettered access to the GIS-compatible data that its government agencies use to conduct “the public’s business,” in the same geodatabase format that the agencies themselves use, or whether the government can license, restrict and charge high prices for such access. As more and more governmental decisions and actions are based on GIS analysis, the issue is central to governmental transparency and accountability to citizens.
The California Public Records Act states in §6253.9 that any agency that has information which constitutes identifiable public records in electronic format, shall make the information available in the electronic format in which it holds the information, and that the agency shall provide a copy of the electronic records if the requested format is one that has been used by the agency to create copies for its own use, or for provision to other agencies. Further, the section states that the cost of duplication shall be limited to the direct cost of producing a copy of the records in the electronic format. The crux of Orange County’s argument is that its GIS-formatted database is exempted under §6254.9, the so-called “software exemption.”
Sierra Club, joined by 212 individual GIS professionals and 23 professional GIS organizations who co-signed one amicus brief among seven supportive amicus briefs, contend that “computer mapping systems” refers only to software, not to the data on which the software operates. Further, it has asserted that .pdf files are not equivalent to a GIS-compatible database, and that the public’s right to inspect and review the exact same data that Orange County uses to make its decisions would be curtailed by .pdf-only data.
Keep watching this blog for updates on this and other issues in the rapidly changing landscape of public domain spatial data. How do you think this case will turn out?