A&A: Does the CPRA allow use of iPhone to photograph public records?

Q: The County Recorders Office prohibits the use of hand scanners or digital cameras in its Public Documents room and requires researchers to purchase document copies from them. Is this restriction legal ?

A: The California Public Records Act (CPRA), in pertinent part, only requires that an agency’s records be “open for inspection”, Govt. Code section 6253(a), and that “upon request for a copy of records . . . [the agency] shall make the records promptly available upon payment of fees covering the direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable” Govt. Code section 6253(b).

Nothing in the law either requires or forbids the agency from permitting private individuals from making their own copies of such records with a camera, scanner or their own copier.

It is therefore unlikely to be a violation of the Public Records Act to restrict records requestors from making their own copies. However, no court of which I am aware has considered the issue.

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


  • Attorney at Wittwer & Parkin LLP did file a Petition for Writ of Mandamus, suing Santa Clara County for this exact issue of bringing a scanner to scan public documents and was refused. Court case 112CV221382. Not sure what the current status is though.

  • As one of the originators of the CA act, I don’t recall any talk of prohibiting anyone from making his own copies. There might be reason to require that a person copying public records do so in a way that guarantees there will be no dasmage to the original. Copying machines do jam and wrinkle or tear originals. Photographing records would not harm originals. If some agency worried that photography might involve light that could damage originals, that should not be a problem in these days of digital low-light cameras. The intent of the law was to make access easy. A possible side thought could be an old couirt decision allowing recording of court procedings for the purpose of making notes,not for reproduction or broadcast.

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