Earlier this week someone browsing mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com 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:
- Those making requests to the university are now warned what it is up to, and are made aware that section 11 of the freedom of information act allows them to specify the format in which they would like to receive their response.
- The original requestors have asked for the information to be released in a more accessible format. (One is citing the disability discrimination act).
- The text of the responses, along with more accessible PDF versions have been placed on WhatDoTheyKnow.
- FOI requests have been made asking the university about advice and discussions relating to the way responses are marked to warn requestors of the university’s rights under copyright and intellectual property law as well as for details of the software used to create the protected files along with the policy decisions made to use it.
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.