A&A: Can a city assert a copyright claim to a public document?

Q: Can a city assert a copyright claim to a public document, in this case a short documentary produced by its cable access television department?

I’m being told no, in California a government entity cannot assert a copyright claim to this video produced at taxpayer expense without the express authorization of the legislature (County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court (CFAC) (2009) 170 Cal. app.4th 1301.

Is that true?

Please note a group that requested a copy of the video from the city under the CA Public Records Act received a copy, but was ordered not to distribute it on YouTube or by any other means.

A: The issue of whether a copyright claim by the government can justify restrictions on the rights of the public under the Public Records Act was indeed addressed in County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court, 170 Cal. App. 4th 1301 (2009).

In that case, the court explained that a state entity may not claim a copyright unless a state law specifically authorizes it to do so. But without such an affirmative grant of authority to obtain and hold the specific copyright, the governmental entity cannot claim a copyright interest. The court further found that absent such express copyright authorization, the Public Records Act’s grant of unrestricted access must prevail.

I am not aware of any statutory authorization for a local government to claim a copyright in a film it has produced. But you may want to ask the city to identify the state statutory basis of its copyright claim.

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and freedom of speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representations.