The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

10 February 2008

Parcels posted

An operation called Seneca Technologies wanted to put tax-assessment maps of West Virginia on the Web, interfaced through Seneca's own search schemes. They duly wrote to the state, citing the Freedom of Information Act, and were informed that if they wanted these maps, they would have to pay the same rate as anyone else: $8 per map. There were over twenty thousand maps.

Seneca filed a suit under FOIA, and won: the state, the judge ruled, could not collect the fee for a paper copy if the files requested were in digital format. Charleston duly copied all the TIF files to CDs and dispatched them to Seneca. Copying fee: twenty dollars.

Upon receipt, Seneca put the maps online and began designing the interface, whereupon Kanawha County Assessor Phyllis Gatson filed a suit asking that Seneca be forced to take down the maps.

The Public Citizen organization filed an amicus brief opposing the suit. [Link to PDF file]. The opposition is simply stated:

In this action, a government official seeks a prior restraint to enjoin defendant from exercising free speech on its web site by providing to the public truthful information obtained from public tax records, on the supposed ground that dissemination of such information violates a state regulation. However, the regulation does not support the requested injunction; if it did apply, it would be preempted by federal copyright law; and, if the Court reaches the First Amendment issue, the requested injunction would violate the First Amendment. Accordingly, the request for a preliminary injunction should be denied.

Gatson subsequently withdrew her request for a preliminary injunction against Seneca, but the suit remains active.

It could be that Gatson is simply trying to protect a source of income for the county, and it's not like she's about to be turned out of office or anything, but something about this doesn't quite pass the smell test. After reading the amicus brief, Steve F. wonders if maybe it's more than fees at issue here:

Do the politically connected have lower assessments? I'm sure the Kanawha County pooh-bahs, like all others, would like to keep this away from public scrutiny.

Which is a lot easier to do if a member of said public has to pay eight bucks for each and every map.

Posted at 5:32 PM to Dyssynergy

I remember an episode of "The Rockford Files" where James Garner goes to the county records office to find out who owns some property. He is only allowed to copy information BY HAND, using his own pen and paper. No Xeroxing, no photocoping. So, yeah, based on an ancient TV show (which is an unimpeachable source), I tend to agree. Something stinks.

Posted by: Charles Pergiel at 10:00 PM on 10 February 2008

there's also an interesting copyright issue here. the tax assessor is trying to claim that posting the maps is a violation of the Federal Copyright Act. our lawyer, however, argues that while some maps can be copyrighted, these particular ones cannot because they convey only facts and not ideas or expressions. i posted about the issue here here.

Posted by: Joe Newman at 11:41 AM on 11 February 2008
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