December 27, 2004

The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.


I have received your letter in which, in your capacity as Town Attorney for the Town of Wappinger, you questioned "whether or not plans, such as certified plot plans, proposed subdivision plats or proposed site plan maps, may be copied pursuant to a FOIL request." You indicated that Town employees "were advised that duplication or copying of stamped engineer’s, surveyor’s or architect’s drawings would be violative of the copyright laws."

As you are aware, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. From my perspective, unless an agency, such as a town, can deny access to the records at issue based on one or more of the exceptions to rights of access, those records must be made available for inspection and copying. In this regard, I offer the following comments.

First, as a general matter, when records are accessible under the Freedom of Information Law, it has been held that they should be made equally available to any person, regardless of one's status, interest or the intended use of the records [see Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976)]. Moreover, the Court of Appeals has held that:

"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on government decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process. (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request" [Farbman v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984)].

Farbman pertained to a situation in which a person involved in litigation against an agency requested records from that agency under the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, it was found that one's status as a litigant had no effect upon that person's right as a member of the public when using the Freedom of Information Law, irrespective of the intended use of the records. Similarly, unless there is a basis for withholding records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the use of the records and the motivation of the applicant are in my opinion irrelevant. Whether the owner of property consents to permit access to a building plan is irrelevant; if a record is available under the Freedom of Information Law, the subject of the record does not have the ability to control disclosure.

Second, access to plans, drawings and surveys that are marked with the seal of an architect, a land surveyor or an engineer has been the subject of several questions and substantial research. Professional engineers and architects are licensed by the Board of Regents (see respectively, Articles 145 and 147 of the Education Law,). While §§ 7209 and 7307 of the Education Law require that the licensees identified above have a seal, and that state and local officials charged with the enforcement of provisions relating to the construction or alteration of buildings cannot accept plans or specifications that do not bear such a seal, I am unaware of any statute that would prohibit the inspection of such records under the Freedom of Information Law. Some have contended that an architect's seal, for example, represents the equivalent of a copyright. Having discussed the matter with numerous officials, including officials of the appropriate licensing boards, the seal does not serve as a copyright, nor does it restrict the right to inspect and copy; it merely indicates that a person is qualified as a licensee.

Third, other considerations may become relevant in relation to copyright. In an effort to obtain guidance, I have discussed the matter with a representative of the U.S. Copyright Office and the Office of Information and Privacy at the U.S. Department of Justice, which advises federal agencies regarding the federal Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. §552), the federal counterpart of the New York Freedom of Information Law.

It is noted that the Federal Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §101 et seq., appears to have supplanted the early case law concerning the Act prior to its amendment in 1976. Useful to the inquiry is a federal court decision in which the history of copyright protection was discussed, and in which reference was made to notes of House Committee on the Judiciary (Report No. 94-1476) referring to the scope and intent of the revised Act. Specifically, it was stated by the court that:

"The power to provide copyright protection is delegated to the Congress by the United States Constitution. Article 1, section 8, clause 8, of the Constitution grants to Congress the power 'to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.'

Copyright did not exist at common law but was created by statute enacted pursuant to this Constitutional authority. See Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201, 74 S.Ct. 460, 98 L.ed. 630 (1954); see also MCA, Inc., v. Wilson, 425 F.Supp. 443, 455 (S.D.N.Y. 1976); Mura v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 245 F.Supp. 587, 589 (S.D.N.Y. 1965), and cases cited therein.

Prior to January 1, 1978, the effective date of the revised Copyright Act of 1976, there existed a dual system of copyright protection which had been in effect since the first federal copyright statute in 1790. Under this dual system, unpublished works enjoyed perpetual copyright protection under state common law, while published works were copyrightable under the prevailing federal statute. The new Act was intended to accomplish 'a fundamental and significant change in the present law by adopting a single system of Federal statutory copyright... (to replace the) anachronistic, uncertain, impractical, and highly complicated dual system.' H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476; 94th Cong. 2d Sess. 129-130, reprinted in [1976] 5 U.S. Code Cong. & Ad. News 5745. This goal was effectuated through the bed-rock provision of 17 U.S.C. subsection 301, which brought unpublished works within the scope of federal copyright law and preempted state statutory and common law rights equivalent to copyright. Id. at 5745-47. Thus, under subsection 301(a), Congress provided that Title 17 of the United States Code, the Federal Copyright Act, preempts all state and common law rights pertaining to all causes of action which arise subsequent to the effective date of the 1976 Act, i.e., January 1, 1978:

(a) On and after January 1, 1978, all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright as specified in Section 106 in works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression and come within the subject matter of copyright as specified in sections 102 and 103, whether published or unpublished, are governed exclusively by this title. Thereafter, no person is entitled to any such right or equivalent right in any such work under the common law or statutes of any State." [Meltzer v. Zoller, 520 F.Supp. 847, 853 (1981)]

Based upon the foregoing, "common law" copyright appears to be a concept that has been rejected and replaced with the current statutory scheme embodied in the revised Federal Copyright Act.

In view of the language of the Copyright Act, case law and discussions with a representative of the Copyright Office, it is clear in my opinion that architectural plans and similar documents may be copyrighted.

Assuming that a work is subject to copyright protection, it is noted that such a work may "at any time during the subsistence of copyright" [17 U.S.C. §408(a)] be registered with the Copyright Office. No action for copyright infringement can be initiated until a copyright claim has been registered. As I understand the Act, if a work bears a copyright and is reproduced without the consent of the copyright holder, the holder may nonetheless register the work and later bring an action for copyright infringement.

In terms of the ability of a citizen to use an access law to assert the right to reproduce copyrighted material, the issue has been considered by the U.S. Department of Justice with respect to copyrighted materials, and its analysis as it pertains to the federal Freedom of Information Act is, in my view, pertinent to the issue as it arises under the state Freedom of Information Law.

The initial aspect of its review involved whether the exception to rights of access analogous to §87(2)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law requires that copyrighted materials be withheld. The cited provision states that an agency may withhold records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." Virtually the same language constitutes a basis for withholding in the federal Act [5 U.S.C. 552(b)(3)]. In the fall 1983 edition of FOIA Update, a publication of the Office of Information and Privacy at the U.S. Department of Justice, it was stated that:

"On its face, the Copyright Act simply cannot be considered a 'nondisclosure' statute, especially in light of its provision permitting full public inspection of registered copyrighted documents at the Copyright Office [see 17 U.S.C. 3705(b)]."

Since copyrighted materials are available for inspection, I agree with the conclusion that records bearing a copyright could not be characterized as being "specifically exempted from"

The next step of the analysis involves the Justice Department's consideration of the federal Act's exception (exemption 4) analogous to §87(2)(d) of the Freedom of Information Law in conjunction with 17 U.S.C. §107, which codifies the doctrine of "fair use". Section 87(2)(d) permits an agency to withhold records that "are trade secrets or are submitted to an agency by a commercial enterprise or derived from information obtained from a commercial enterprise and which if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise." Under §107, copyrighted work may be reproduced "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" without infringement of the copyright. Further, the provision describes the factors to be considered in determining whether a work may be reproduced for a fair use, including "the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work" [17 U.S.C. §107(4)].

According to the Department of Justice, the most common basis for the assertion of the federal Act's "trade secret" exception involves "a showing of competitive harm," and in the context of a request for a copyrighted work, the exception may be invoked "whenever it is determined that the copyright holder's market for his work would be adversely affected by FOIA disclosure" (FOIA Update, supra). As such, it was concluded that the trade secret exception:

"stands as a viable means of protecting commercially valuable copyrighted works where FOIA disclosure would have a substantial adverse effect on the copyright holder's potential market. Such use of Exemption 4 is fully consonant with its broad purpose of protecting the commercial interests of those who submit information to government... Moreover, as has been suggested, where FOIA disclosure would have an adverse impact on 'the potential market for or value of [a] copyrighted work,' 17 U.S.C. §107(4), Exemption 4 and the Copyright Act actually embody virtually congruent protection, because such an adverse economic effect will almost always preclude a 'fair use' copyright defense...Thus, Exemption 4 should protect such materials in the same instances in which copyright infringement would be found" (id.).

Conversely, it was suggested that when disclosure of a copyrighted work would not have a substantial adverse effect on the potential market of the copyright holder, the trade secret exemption could not appropriately be asserted. Further, "[g]iven that the FOIA is designed to serve the public interest in access to information maintained by government," it was contended that "disclosure of nonexempt copyrighted documents under the Freedom of Information act should be considered a 'fair use'" (id.).

Due to the similarities between the federal Freedom of Information Act and the New York Freedom of Information Law, the analysis by the Justice Department might be applied when making determinations regarding the reproduction of copyrighted materials maintained by entities of government in New York. In sum, if reproduction of copyrighted architectural plans and similar records would "cause substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise," i.e., the holder of the copyright, in conjunction with §87(2)(d) of the Freedom of Information Law, it would appear that an agency could preclude reproduction of the work. On the other hand, if reproduction of the work would not result in substantial injury to the competitive position of the copyright holder, that exception would not apply.

The remaining provision of potential significance, §87(2)(f) of the Freedom of Information Law, permits an agency to withhold records insofar as disclosure could "endanger the life or safety of any person." It has been advised that the cited provision might properly be invoked insofar as the kinds of records at issue include information concerning alarms, security systems and the like.

In sum, assuming that an agency cannot rely upon the grounds for denial discussed above, I believe that the agency is required to permit an applicant to inspect and copy a copyrighted work. In that situation, the government agency that discloses the record should bear no liability or responsibility relating to the use of the work. Rather, if the holder of the copyright believes that the recipient of a copy of the work has in some manner violated the Copyright Act, that person or entity may initiate proceedings against the recipient for copyright infringement.


I hope that I have been of assistance.


Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director