Southampton Uni Reluctant to Set Information Free

Earlier this week someone browsing mySociety’s freedom of information website contacted us reporting they couldn’t open a PDF document Southampton University had sent in reply to a request asking about the amount of printer credit purchased at the institution. The user suspected the file might be corrupt.

We investigated and determined the attachment is in fact in a fancy PDF format which cannot be read by many PDF readers. Those applications which are able to open the document present a cover page inviting the reader to agree to an “intellectual property rights notice”. The terms of the notice forbid “use” of the “material” without “the written permission of the university”. The intent appears to be to ensure only those agreeing to the terms are given access to the document’s content.

The Freedom of Information Act requires authorities to release information whether or not the person making the request wants to enter into an agreement with respect to its use; so one could argue the university are not properly discharging their responsibilities. In any case their stance is silly because anyone who wants to can request their own copy of the information. All they’re doing is creating more work for themselves.

What were they thinking?
An article John Ozimek of The Register has written in response to the correspondence reports the university explaining their actions by saying:

The Freedom of Information Act gives applicants the right to have information held by public authorities communicated to them, not to documents. Applicants are entitled to use that information so long as they do not breach the intellectual property rights of the public authority: taking the information and using it in a document of their own is acceptable, making use of a document which contains not only the information requested but copyright material is not.

One problem with this was pointedly highlighted by a comment on the Register article saying: Ask yourself, “how do I prove my facts if I can’t publish the evidence?”

WhatDoTheyKnow routinely publishes information released under FOI despite a wide variety of copyright and other legal notices and disclaimers suggesting we shouldn’t. (Read the policy on copyright.) This has been the first relatively elaborate technological attempt to circumvent WhatDoTheyKnow’s efforts to make the responses to FOI requests easily accessible to everyone.

WhatDoTheyKnow’s staff, volunteers, and users have responded to the university’s actions in a number of ways:

They’ve got form
This is not the first time the freedom of information team at Southampton University have been inventive in their use of PDFs; back in May they responded to a request via a password protected PDF version of a compliments slip which they attached to an email.


  1. I asked the ICO what they thought of this response and other similar responses by the University of Southampton.

    I today received a reply containing a couple of surprising elements:



    Wednesday 14 October 2009

    Case Reference Number: ENQ0268174

    Dear Richard

    Our view is that there is a distinction between the form in which a piece of information is communicated e.g. an electronic form, and how the data is arranged within that form i.e. the specific software format. Therefore, an applicant can ask for an electronic copy, but they are not entitled to specify the specific software format.

    However, it would be good practice for a public authority to offer to provide the applicant with the information in the exact format they request or at the very least provide information on how they may obtain the relevant software (where reasonably possible).

    I wrote to Ms Barbara Halliday (Head of Legal Services) of University of Southampton on the 29 October 2009 regarding the issue of the type of file format they are using when responding electronically to requests. I received a response on the 9 October 2009 where Ms Halliday outlined the University of Southampton’s approach i.e. she explained that they use a version of Adobe Acrobat which is readily available to download for free on the internet and that they are willing to make alternative arrangements in terms of the file format if asked, where reasonably possible. This approach appears to be consistent with our good practice.

    There was nothing in Ms Halliday’s response which would indicate that their approach is an attempt to impose conditions upon the use of the information they disclose, which as you correctly say is not consistent with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 or Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

    In light of the above we do not intend to take the matter any further. If you have any further questions, then please do not hesitate to contact us.

    Yours sincerely

    Mr Kawser Hamid

    FOI Good Practice Officer

    Information Commissioner’s Office

    Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

    I responded:

    Dear Mr Hamid,

    Case Reference Number: ENQ0268174

    Many thanks for considering this situation.

    You have written: “There was nothing in Ms Halliday’s response which would indicate that their approach is an attempt to impose conditions upon the use of the information they disclose”

    Did you look at the format in the which the university has been sending out in response to FOI requests? One advantage of the fact some requests have been made, in public, via is that you do not have to rely on what the university is telling you they have done, you can view the entire correspondence threads online. For example at:

    If you are able to view the PDF response at all you will find it requires users to agree to conditions before being provided with easy access to the information. In particular it seeks to prevent “use” of the document without permission. I cannot see how that action can be described as not being an attempt to impose conditions on the information disclosed. I question your approach of putting more weight on what a university officer has told you than on the university’s actions.

    On a different matter I find your statement: “an applicant can ask for an electronic copy, but they are not entitled to specify the specific software format” worrying. Personally I find the implied suggestion that all electronic formats are equal nonsense. Not only are there matters of interoperability, requiring specific operating systems and applications to view material as occurred in this case, but you are suggesting that an “image” of a spreadsheet provided would be considered equivalent to a format which enables data to be extracted and manipulated. I am happy that many public authorities do comply with requestor’s preferences for information to be communicated via particular classes of file formats (eg. open formats allowing access to raw data). I am very disappointed the ICO are not indicating support for individuals making use of this valuable section of the act.