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JILT 1996 (2) - Charles Oppenheim

Crown Copyright and HMSO

Charles Oppenheim
de Montfort University
Hammerwood Gate
Milton Keynes
Beds MK7 6HP


1. Introduction

2. Ethical Questions

3. Practicalities

4. The Way Forward

5. Conclusion

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Date of publication: 7 May 1996

Citation:Oppenheim, C (1996) 'Crown Copyright and HMSO', 1996 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT), <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Introduction

As many readers of JILT will be aware, it is the UK Government's intention to privatise Her Majesty's Stationery Office and therefore HMSO will be expected to make a significant profit on its activities. The pricing of many HMSO publications already causes considerable unease. There are, no doubt, good reasons for the high prices charged by HMSO. Relatively few HMSO publications are best sellers, and therefore HMSO, unlike commercial publishers, does not enjoy the economies of scale that other publishers enjoy. Furthermore, unlike a commercial publisher that can choose to decline to publish a work if it considers the market is not large enough, HMSO is frequently under an obligation to publish the most obscure materials that are bound to have a niche audience. So in practice, there is only one way that HMSO can achieve a reasonable profit margin. HMSO will have to continue to exploit Crown Copyright and to charge high prices for its products. Furthermore, it will be tempted to charge high prices for licensing rights, whether electronic or print, for Crown Copyright materials.

2. Ethical Questions

Fundamental ethical questions are raised by this approach. Crown Copyright material is collected and/or created by Government so that it (Government) functions efficiently. Govermnent is paid for by our taxes and the purpose of Govermnent is to sersve the citizens of this country. It therefore makes no sense to charge citizens for information Government has collected for its own running. The fundamental point is that Government is here to serve the people, not the other way around. Charging citizens for access to Government created information only makes sense in an environment where citizens are seen to serve Govermnent and are only allowed access to information when Government chooses to release it. In theory at least, our democracy operates on the first basis, not the second.

3. Practicalities

Besides the ethical question, there is the sheer practicality of it all; HMSO's profits are modest indeed, about ?0,000,000 p.a., a sum that is petty cash to the Government. At the same time, killing the concept of Crown Copyright (a concept, incidentally, that has no parallel in any other major economic power), would allow the information industry to exploit the data fully and add value to it for its own services as well as allowing citizens access to information that is rightfully theirs for free.

At present, the Government's approach is haphazard. Whilst attempting to privatise HMSO, it has illogically recently announced a relaxation of the HMSO grip on Crown Copyright by allowing print and electronic licenses to some material to third parties at no charge. The move has been in response to pressure from publishers and users. However welcome, this approach makes no sense within a policy of privatising HMSO.

4. The way forward?

So what is the way forward? In my mind, there is just one way. The following policies should be adopted:

  1. HMSO should remain within Government as the publishing arm of Government, but with a remit to act as a service to citizens, rather than earn income.
  2. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act should be amended along the lines of the US Copyright Act, so that Crown produced materials and Parliamentary materials (both as defined within the Act) are deemed to have no copyright associated with them at all; in other words, they should be free of all copyright - 'in the public domain' to use the common parlance.
  3. Government should mount on the Internet and at no charge as much Crown and Parliamentary material as it deems fit. This should include all Bills, Acts, Statutory Instruments, Parliamentary proceedings, major reports and statistics. People can then access, download and print the material out as they so wish. All that would be required is that the material should acknowledge the source, and should not be amended without prior approval.

What would be the results of such a policy? The major results would be:

  1. The Government would lose a small amount of income because of the loss of privatisation.
  2. HMSO, too, would probably lose some sales, although I suspect many will still wish to purchase hard copy materials from HMSO. However, the loss of sales, and the possible impact on HMSO staff would be compensated for by other changes. In any case, with privatisation looming, the prospects for HMSO staff right now are uncertain.The latest results from HMSO published on the 30th April show that they made a significant loss in the last financial year.
  3. Citizens with Internet access - an increasing number - would have convenient access to the information they need to play their full parts as citizens. Citizens without Internet access will still be able to use the public library system to obtain either print or electronic access - increasingly, libraries will get Internet access.
  4. The information industry, as in the USA, will get the boost of being able to pick and choose what HMSO material it wishes to add value to by indexing, adding commentary to, etc. and will then offer that material at whatever charge it wishes.

In short, such a policy would offer the virtue of both assisting the UK information industry and fulfilling the obligation of Government to serve its citizens.

5. Conclusion

It is not as if the policy I have outlined is unique. It is the normal practice in many countries, most notably the USA. It is the UK that is out of line. Arguably, the strength of the US information industry is partially attributable to the policy of no copyright on Government created information. However, my proposal is revolutionary, in that no longer will government, or HMSO, in their infinite wisdom decide who may or may not copy their material, and at what charge; in future, citizens could pick and choose to copy what they wanted.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology is currently holding an inquiry into the Information Superhighway's impact on society. It has already received written evidence from a number of organisations arguing precisely the case I have outlined in this brief paper. Perhaps JILT readers should also write in to the inquiry along the same lines?

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