In June 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a ruling on a longstanding public records case with relevance to geospatial professionals in Wisconsin. The State Cartographer’s Office (SCO) recently published a five-page analysis of the case, authored former SCO staffer Lea Shanley. It describes the history and chronology of the case, and highlights the major conclusions reached by several courts throughout its history.
Fundamentally, the case hinged on whether home appraisal data held by a private contractor on behalf of several municipalities were subject to Wisconsin’s public records law. In short, the Supreme Court determined that in fact those data are public records, and government agencies cannot delegate responsibility for responding to public records requests to their contractors.
The case also made it clear that public records requests lacking reasonable specificity are open to interpretation, possibly having a result not intended by the requestor. As outlined in the case, WIREdata asked for an “electronic/digital copy” of the records, which they eventually did receive in PDF format. The Supreme Court ruled the PDF format did fulfill the request since PDF is an “electronic” format, even though the data could not be manipulated in the way WIREdata had hoped.
While the Court clearly stated that public agencies cannot make a profit in responding to a public records request, it did not address the hot-button issue of whether an agency can charge a fee to license or sell geospatial data.
In addition to the analysis of the case, the publication also contains a brief editorial written by yours truly regarding questions the WIREdata case did not answer. And unfortunately for our community, there are many issues still left to be resolved regarding geospatial data and their relationship to public records and copyright.