alerts us to the latest example of government officials abusing copyright law (or claims of copyright law) to avoid basic transparency. And this one's quite incredible. Kyle Pell, who runs the website bustedmugshots.com, is involved in a lawsuit after Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder stopped releasing mugshots by claiming he held the copyright on them
. Yes, the police, claiming copyright on mugshots. Winder's heart may be in the right place, arguing that sites like that are unfair, but that's no excuse for his own actions.
"I believe that the practice of using these mug shots to belittle and abuse our citizens is immoral and repugnant," he said when discussing the websites in general during an interview Tuesday.
"A compassionate society does not utilize the scarlet letter," he said
In other words, he's admitting that his copyright claim has nothing to do with what copyright law is for, but everything to do with censoring a website. Yeah, that's probably not a good idea.
This is not what copyright law is intended for, and the use as such is a clear abuse of the law. Of course, whether or not there's even a legitimate copyright there is a bit of somewhat unsettled law. While it's clear that works created by the federal government
are automatically public domain, it's a little fuzzier when you get down to local governments. Many local governments, smartly, take the position that they face the same rules as the federal government, and assume that such documents are public, but it's not entirely clear under the law if this is necessarily the case. Go down to the level of a sheriff's department, and he could potentially argue that the prohibition on copyrighting works created by government don't apply. It's a weak argument, to be sure, and one that I doubt would hold up in court, but it's not entirely settled.
This is unfortunate, of course. We've long argued -- and believe strongly -- that all government created works should be public domain. They don't need the copyright incentive to be created, obviously. Furthermore, mugshots have long been seen as a part of the public record. To retroactively claim copyright on them is just bizarre. There's clearly no copyright interest in the photos. They weren't created because of copyright. The government isn't using them to promote greater public learning or to support more content creation. It's flat out using it to censor a website that it doesn't like. That should mean that even if a court unfortunately finds that the Sheriff can claim copyright, opening his mouth to flat out say that he's doing it to censor the website probably undermines his argument, as it shows a government deliberately blocking someone's speech.