Crown Copyright Outrage

Tomorrow’s Guardian has an amazing story about a British Government’s proposal to charge for access to legal information, when value has been added to the raw text.

A few juicy quotes:

Firstly, an astounding Crown copyright notice greets the reader: “The Statute Law Database and the material on the SLD website are subject to Crown copyright protection. The Crown copyright waiver that applies to published legislation generally does not apply to SLD because it is a value-added product. Any reuse of material from SLD will be the subject of separate and specific licensing arrangements. No such arrangements have yet been entered into. Users should not therefore reproduce or reuse any material from SLD until further guidance is issued.”

This is not how it could, or should, have happened. In the US, where information compiled at public expense by public officials is copyright free, the public has had access to consolidated law for decades. Since 1992, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University in New York has been the leading online resource for US law and Supreme Court decisions. “The raw material for our United States Code collection is provided us by the law revision counsel’s office in the House of Representatives,” says institute director Thomas R Bruce. “They have actively helped us with the things we publish.”

Even Canada, which inherited Crown copyright from us, provides its citizens free access to parliamentary law. In the mid-90s the University of Montreal, which now operates the Canadian Legal Information Institute, set out to remove copyright limits on the distribution of law. It succeeded and the Reproduction of Federal Law Order was issued in late 1996.

Meanwhile, in the UK, we’re still suffering under the yoke of Crown copyright. “This copyright situation manages to be bad for business, bad for lawyers, bad for the general public and bad for our freedom all at the same time,” Irving said.

My question to our British readers is – is this true? Since the FAQs on Crown Copyright tell a very different story.


  1. The assertion of Crown Copyright is correct, but with the OPSI site all recent legislation is available, and Bailli holds the material as well. It is not consolidated, and there is no ‘free’ government site such as those in US, Australia etc. Heather Brooke spoke at the JSI conference last week, and whilst she has raised a vaild issue, the article does sensationalise things a little bit, because the CC is waived easily as you can see from the FAQ pages. The actual government database has become a saga in its own right, but people can access legislation freely, just not in a consolidated format.

  2. Thanks Ruth. Wouldn’t be the first time that the Grauniad has exaggerated a bit.

  3. A recent document (20 june 2006) from the very official United Kingdom delegation of the “working party on legal data processing” of the Council of the European union :
    tells exactly the contrary of what it is said in the Guardian.

    “The overall strategy involves (…)Providing access to the UK Statute Law Database, thus enabling users to access all legislation as it is first enacted and as it is revised and updated over time.”

  4. The DCA regards the Statute Law Database as a “value added” service and so without the Crown copyright waiver. See para 15 of:

    More on the ins and outs of this at

  5. The DCA regards the Statute Law Database as a “value added” service and so without the Crown copyright waiver. See para 15 of:

    More on the ins and outs of this at

  6. So that’s why Heather Brooke took off on the issue.

    Funny we fought this issue out in Canada in the 1980s. Good summary by David Vaver of Oxford at