West Virginia Tax Official Tries To Stop Website From Posting Public Tax Maps

from the follow-the-money dept

Paul Alan Levy writes "The county tax assessor in Charleston, West Virginia, has sued a local tech company that had the audacity to post public tax maps from the entire state of West Virginia on its web site. The company obtained the maps under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for a total charge of $20 for 28000 maps (the actual cost of copying electronic files to CDs). The tax assessor complains that she stands to lose the profit she makes by selling paper tax maps at $8 per sheet. Why should you care? If the county tax assesor wins her case, it could affect other Web sites and bloggers that make public government records available on the Internet." Apparently, what some people have a different idea of what “public” information means than others… especially when the government stands to profit from that information. While government documents cannot be covered by copyright, apparently some gov’t officials feel that preventing their ability to profit off of that public data is illegal.

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Comments on “West Virginia Tax Official Tries To Stop Website From Posting Public Tax Maps”

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Ben Smith (profile) says:

West by gawd Va

As a former resident of WV, I’m not surprised to see this. It has been and continues to be one of the most corrupt states in the union. Despite a history of strong democratic support, it’s not the most progressive place in the US, so the backward attitude about how public information can be used doesn’t surprise me at all.

Cue the banjo exit music…

WV Insider says:

Re: simple solution

The cat’s basically out of the bag on the 2007 maps. Their real goal is (was?) to prevent Seneca, or anyone else from obtaining updated maps every year.

The Kanawha County Assessor, and the WV Courthouse Facilities Improvement Fund have also filed to intervene in the original FOIA case, which is headed for the WV Supreme Court because the judge in the original case did not award Seneca their attorney fees. The Assessor and the Courthouse fund are attempting to appeal the entire decision, even though the WV State Tax Department declined to do so.

Anonymous Coward says:

tax maps in VA - same thing

Recently they shut down free internet access to the tax maps in VA- stating you needed to have a license in order to access the information…talk about raising the bar even further. I think in this case it is the Realtors trying to prevent public access to that information. Prior to this you could access the sale price of any of the homes in your neighborhood to see if your Realtor is low balling the price to make a quick commission, a very common practice because the commission on an extra 20k isnt worth nearly as much to the realtor as it is to the seller.

Evil Lincoln says:


I have learned that in this life the thickest BS to cut through always has to deal with those that have money versus those that want/need it. color, creed, religion…nothing compared to the green blood of economics. Basically, this bitch don’t want to share, apparently she has been ripping folks off too: $8 bucks a sheet against $20 for all 28000. I bet she is too ugly to be a stripper. Just a wild guess there.

lavi d (profile) says:

Does anyone know?

Did the printing press cause these kinds of continuous, major disruptions?

I suppose the scribe’s guild probably had a collective coronary, but Jesus, stories like this are an astounding and somewhat frightening glimpse into the narrowness of some people’s perceptions.

Speaking of Jesus, perhaps Gutenberg got something of a “pass” because the first thing he printed were copies of a bible.


Comboman says:

Re: Does anyone know?

perhaps Gutenberg got something of a “pass” because the first thing he printed were copies of a bible.

Quite the opposite. The Church was used to being the sole authority on the bible. The only bibles were locked up in churches and people had to take the word of their priests that what they were being told (selling indulgences, etc) was actually in the bible. Once common people got their own copy of the bible, they found out this was not the case and many new religions popped up. It’s no coincidence that the Protestant reformation began only a few decades after Gutenberg’s presses started up.

Richard Ahlquist (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Uhhh yes you do want them to collect tax money for service rendered. And in this case the money was collected for the service rendered. After I buy a map at a service station I can pass it around to as many people as I want at no cost to the gas station. Same is true here, sharing the public data(that your tax dollars already paid to accumulate) costs the tax office nothing.

Now if the lady in question is a record keeper and 90% of her job is dispensing records then perhaps she is more worried about losing her job due to lack of work than she is worried about the office getting paid for distribution of the free(as in your tax dollars previously paid for it as I mentioned) data they have. Ideally once the data is collected it should be provided online for free at taxpayer expense which should cost pennies per tax payer.

If the data is public record they need to provide it to the public when asked.

If the public demands a hard copy then the tax office has a right to be compensated for the costs involved in covering the overhead of providing that particular copy.

If that particular copy is then distributed free of charge by the purchaser of the copy the tax office deserves nothing as the documents distribution cost it nothing.

AC says:

Tax Maps In VA

“Recently they shut down free internet access to the tax maps in VA- stating you needed to have a license in order to access the information”

Reference please?

This from Fairfax County VA web page:

“This site provides assessed values and physical characteristics extracted from the official assessment records for all residential and commercial properties in Fairfax County. Click the Property Search tab above to begin searching by address or tax map reference number. From these links, you can also view residential sales within a property’s assessment neighborhood. Please note, under Virginia State law these records are public information. Display of this information on the Internet is specifically authorized by Va. Code §58.1-3122.2 (1998). See the Virginia State Code to read the pertinent enabling statute.”

Rick Casey says:

touches a deep issue

Excellent article, as it touches a deep issue in America: the influence if not de facto control that the business world has over our government, at all levels. With the cost of information production and distribution driven lower and lower in a networked, digital world, the suppression of public information by business interests, or corrupt bureaucrats, will become more evident, and can only help to expose and reverse the corrupting influence of business over government. Indeed, this corrupting influence extends to our own minds (via the media) as to why our government exists, and who it should serve.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“If the govt. can’t charge money for people to see the documents, then they will either have to cut services or raise taxes.”

Ahem. Why is this exactly? The collection of this information has already been paid for by the taxpayer, as has the collation into the 28000 documents. Why should the government office hold a charged-for monopoly on supplying that information?

If the information is freely available on-line, a person can still go to the office and pay for the CD or printout but they have the choice to get it for free (at no cost to the county as it’s a privately funded site).

Why should WV taxpayers be forced to pay $8 for a printout of public information they’ve already paid for?

WV Insider says:

Re: Re:

The assessors are required to create the maps in order to do their jobs, i.e. assess property in their counties. Last year (on average) each county received a whopping 3,000 in revenue from tax map sales. Now subtract from that the $3 that goes to the improvement fund, the cost of paper, toner, duplication equipment, maintenance, and most importantly time with each requester. Now, how much did they actually profit from the sale?

Steve R. (profile) says:

Public Records

This is actually quite a role switch. In the two states wehere I have recently lived, tax maps are publicly available on the web. That is the way it should be.

How is this a switch? Private companies have attempted to prevent governments from disseminating public data claiming that it would deprive them of revenue. I don’t know what became of this bill, but in May 2005, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported “Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the Senate’s third-ranking Republican, is pushing a bill that critics say would force the Weather Service to disseminate much of its data only to private companies.”

Private companies have no entitlement to make money off public records. While they may have no entitlement, that doesn’t mean they can’t try to sell it either. However, they should never be allowed to prevent a government agency from making public data available to the public.

AC what? says:

paid for

No offence but as a tax payer, you’ve already paid for the production of said maps by the government. The fact that it basically costs nothing to distribute them online yet they still want money is stupid, hence the point.

Why they need the extra money is a different issue. If they can justify this, they can probably justify bringing back the poll tax as well.

pilgrim (profile) says:

Hey Anon –
If, as citizens, we just wanted to maximize the amount of money our various government offices could collect for performing their jobs (the ones we’ve already paid them to do), why stop at a measly $8 per sheet? Why not charge $8000? Or $8 million? That way, all you’d need to do is sell one copy and you’d make more money than if everyone in the county each bought a copy. I mean, there’s got to be some developer or someone who’s willing to pay $8 mil, right? And why stop at tax maps? Why not make access to the tax *code* cost money? So people would have to pay $100 just to find out how much tax they owed? That would raise lots of revenue, too. Right?

Also, just to point out one quibble with the initial story: Under US law, *federal* government works are unprotected by copyright. Works produced by state and local governments may still enjoy copyright protection (along with works produced by foreign governments, to the extent their own government’s protect them).

by Anonymous Coward on Feb 6th, 2008 @ 11:22am
Ummm, as a citizen of WV, I would think you would want the tax office to collect money.

Guess what, if they stop getting that money, your taxes will go up. Think about it.

Paul Alan Levy (user link) says:

One small comment

The point is made above that “government documents cannot be covered by copyright.” Actually, that is true only of federal government documents, not state or local government documents. Whether it is a good idea for governments to register copyright in public records, and whether that registration would be effective for something like a tax map, is a different question.

Bill Patry discussed this issue in his Copyright Blog today: http://williampatry.blogspot.com/2008/02/state-and-local-tax-assessment-maps.html

FWIW, at least one state court has held that limiting the use of tax maps through a licensing scheme is contrary to the public policy of the state as expressed in the Freedom of Information Act. See http://www.2dca.org/opinion/December%2001,%202004/2D03-3346.pdf.

For those of you who live in West Virginia, it is quite possible that the tax assessors will respond to this litigation by trying to get the law revised to allow them to pursue such claims under the Copyright Code.

Anonymous Coward says:

Do you actually think the govt. will actually operate efficiently? Ha.

When their revenue goes down, they will either cut services or raise taxes. Maybe some of you should live in the real world, but thats how it works. And you want the govt. to pay for healthcare too? Lower taxes, pay for healthcare. Yeah, that works.

Dan says:

Re: Re:

“Think about it. If the govt. can’t charge money for people to see the documents, then they will either have to cut services or raise taxes.”

The charge is only supposed to cover the cost of printing the documents and the paper it is printed on, since the information being printed has already been paid for by taxes. If the demand for paper copies of the documents is lowered, the government will no longer have to purchase the same quantities of paper or ink. So while there will be a decrease in revenue, there will likewise be a decrease in expenses. Apparently the tax assessor is charging more than the cost of the supplies, which seems a tad unethical, considering the information is public record.

The information, while not free, has been paid for by the taxpayers of West Virginia. I fail to see why the state government should be allowed to turn a profit on public information.

Anonymous Coward says:

All of you are correct, the government should not be allowed to make a profit off of public information. However, they’re going to do so every opportunity they get and will enact every scribble of legislation they can to ensure their ability to squeeze every last cent out of us. Odds are there isn’t a law, or if there is a law agianst this type of behavior that although the information can be obtained for free, if a person chooses to pay to obtain said information and does so out of their own ill-informed decsion, that the person who is charging the money is not liable for the sale, even if they’re misleading; in other words, it’s like selling promotional coupons. Get a free ticket to a sneak preview and charge someone $20 for it and you’re not really breaking the law.

Someone once said “The world is comprised of two kinds of people: Idiots; and those clever enough to take indecent advantage of them.”

Seems to be a case of exactly that, and to that end I have no problem with this situation. I take issue with her actions of trying to take it to the next level. Saying she has the exclusive right to distribute this information. For something like that people should be given the death sentance, and upon conviction drug out to a ditch and shot.

Dan says:

Re: Re:

Point of Order here.

No U.S. government branch, or agency, whether at the Federal, State, or local level exist to make a profit. Period. The government is supposed to exist to solely provide essential services. Taxes pay for that.

I would like to know how the $8 was derived for this service. I would bet the collector has not even documented the calculations. How long and how much does it take to make a copy?? 5 minutes to retrieve, and 1 minute to copy??

If the woman is elected, her constituents should pull her short hairs. If she is appointed, her manager should have a “come to Jesus” talk with her.

Rose M. Welch says:

I bet they pay the girl who makes the copies more than the actual profit after printing costs. When the maps are on-line, they can fire her ass and save the residents of West Virginia some money.

What if I drew my own map and used the information that *belongs* to me (as a member of the public) to mark out the tax areas, and posted *that* on the Internet. Would that be copyright infringement also?

Rofl, this is probably the one and only time that I can say that I am happy to live in Oklahoma.

Anonymous Coward says:

For everyone who claims there taxes will go up…. Think about this.

How is this government branch funded? By Taxes or by selling maps? If it is by selling the maps then we have a major problem with our government. The office of taxation should be fully funded by your tax dollars. If they have to raise taxes because the office can not afford to stay open, then I think they need to manage our dollars better.

Anonymous Coward says:

The idea that they would need to raise taxes or cut services is ludicrous. As I see it, one of the biggest problems with government is that they never get smaller. They are increasing tax revenue every year and thus adding more levels of bureaucracy. When there is an even (recession, tax cuts etc) that threatens their revenue they scream bloody murder.

Any corporation that has been around long enough to have seen both good and bad times knows that you must adapt to the market. Perhaps you can’t do the huge IT rollout you wanted, or start a bunch of new projects, and you may even need to lay off a couple of people. Government needs to be run more like a corporation in that fashion. They need to realize that their funds may not always be where they want them to be and they need to learn to get by with what they have.

I know our local Govt Property Appraiser/Tax Collector has huge ways they could cut back. A friend of mine in their IT department told me that every year in the last quarter the head of the IT department gets everyone together and tells them how much money they have to spend before the end of the budget year. The particular year he was talking about they ended up spending $400k in stuff they didnt really need just so that their budget was not cut for the next year. A year later half of it was still in the boxes.

If that were my company, that Director would be in the unemployment line.

Doc Slobber says:

West Virginia

>Cue the banjo exit music…

And sing along with this old favorite:

I’m My Own Grandpa
( Lonzo & Oscar )

It sounds funny, I know,
But it really is so,
Oh, I’m my own grandpa.

I’m my own grandpa.
I’m my own grandpa.
It sounds funny, I know,
But it really is so,
Oh, I’m my own grandpa.

Now many, many years ago, when I was twenty-three,
I was married to a widow who was pretty as could be.
This widow had a grown-up daughter who had hair of red.
My father fell in love with her, and soon they, too, were wed.

This made my dad my son-in-law and changed my very life,
My daughter was my mother, cause she was my father’s wife.
To complicate the matter, even though it brought me joy,
I soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy.

My little baby then became a brother-in-law to Dad,
And so became my uncle, though it made me very sad.
For if he was my uncle, then that also made him brother
Of the widow’s grown-up daughter, who, of course, was my stepmother.

Father’s wife then had a son who kept him on the run,
And he became my grandchild, for he was my daughter’s son.
My wife is now my mother’s mother, and it makes me blue,
Because, although she is my wife, she’s my grandmother, too.

Now if my wife is my grandmother, then I’m her grandchild,
And everytime I think of it, it nearly drives me wild,
For now I have become the strangest case you ever saw
As husband of my grandmother, I am my own grandpa!

I’m my own grandpa.
I’m my own grandpa.
It sounds funny, I know, but it really is so,
Oh, I’m my own grandpa.

Paul Alan Levy (user link) says:

Tax Assessor Backs Off -- for now

I am pleased to announce that the plaintiff in this case has come to her senses and agreed to cancel the hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction, thus leaving Seneca’s web site – with its freely available maps – in place. Although she is not (yet) dismissing her lawsuit, the tax assessor and her counsel are to be commended for their willingness to take a second look at their lawsuit and to think about whether there are means other than seeking a prior restraint against the posting of FOIA’d documents to accomplish objectives that they consider legitimate.

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