The Privatization Of Public Data Sets A Bad Precedent

from the please-make-it-stop dept

Last summer we wrote about a troubling lawsuit filed by a company called Public Engines against a competitor called Report See. Each company runs their own open website that reports crime data. Public Engines runs Report See runs They have very different business models, however. CrimeReports is ad free. It makes its money because Public Engines signs expensive deals with local police departments around the country to take their crime data and format it for better use. SpotCrime, on the other hand, whose business model is based on advertising, collects whatever data it can from public sources, including police departments who publish the data, newspaper crime reports… and, at one point, the data it found on

It’s this bit that got so upset. It filed a lawsuit alleging a whole bunch of things, all of which seemed pretty questionable. There was a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claim, which is the anti-hacking law that has been abused quite a lot recently. But there was no “hacking” going on here, as the data was (a) public data and (b) posted on an open website. Claiming that it’s hacking to get the data is simply ridiculous. Then there was a breach of contract claim, but, of course, Public Engines has no contract with Report See, so again it’s difficult to see this claim making any sense. Then things get bizarre. Public Engines claimed that SpotCrime violates a cyber-terrorism law. That one is so ridiculous it doesn’t even need a response. On top of that there were false advertising and the once-again popular “hot news” claims — again, neither of which makes any sense. There was no false advertising, and this is data, not news, so there’s no hot news claim.

Unfortunately, however, it looks like the legal costs were a bit much for Report See and SpotCrime, and it finally agreed to settle the lawsuit, and drop the data, rather than get a ruling on the legality of it. While this doesn’t set any sort of legal precedent, there are reasonable worries that it can and will create significant chilling effects in similar situations.

But the even larger issue is how this kind of privatization of public data is being allowed, and these kinds of ridiculous lawsuits create a path for these private companies to make such public data proprietary even though the courts have long rejected the idea of copyright on data collections. Without copyright, Public Engines was still able to break out a whole list of absolutely silly legal claims, and they were enough to get Report See to back down. This should be terrifying for anyone who believes in the importance of transparency in government and public data.

Oh, and one final point, just to ward off anyone who thinks that this data “needs” to be privatized in order to get it released to the public in the first place. That’s simply ridiculous. First of all, it’s entirely possible for police departments to figure out ways to release the data to the public directly, and I’m surprised that standard reporting software hasn’t popped up yet, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time. Second, the idea that couldn’t compete against if it couldn’t keep the data proprietary is simply ridiculous. First of all, if you compare the two websites directly, it’s not hard to see that CrimeReports’ website is simply nicer and much more user friendly. There’s no reason it can’t compete (and compete strongly) even if SpotCrime is copying its data.

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Companies: public engines, report see

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Comments on “The Privatization Of Public Data Sets A Bad Precedent”

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Howard the Duck (profile) says:


Google and Bing’s drama? There are hundreds of sites that use public telephone numbers and other info freely available on the web. What if one of those aggregating sites claimed the info was all theirs and sued? Ridiculous. If you want to find out who owned your house last, you would search the public records, are you saying that data should be owned by some private company?

Planespotter (profile) says:


“Just because data is in the open doesn’t mean you can just scrape it and make it your own.”

err… but ….err are taking data that is out in the open and making it theirs, they may be getting the openly available data by cutting deals with police forces directly but the data is still out there. So which side are you on, because your arguement from this side of the screen doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Josef Anvil (profile) says:

Big fan, but.....

Mike, Im gunna start by saying I love your blog and agree with a lot of it but….

This post is inflammatory and misleading as most of the trolls you shine the spotlight on.

Yeah its a shame that Company A forced Company B to back down with bogus claims, but as you stated there was no legal precedent set. While I can certainly understand your outrage and concern about a “chilling effect”; when I read the title, it certainly implied that there was some precedent set. I was halfway done with the article when I read there was none.

Kudos on a great blog in general, but this article more of faint flickering of things that “might” come to pass, IF a bunch of bogus legal arguments are accepted by a court.

It looks like Company A’s legal team just looked in the big book of “internet laws” and chose all of them, thinking “one of these HAS to be be able to protect our client’s business model.” Since its a crime reporting fight, I’m surprised there were no shouts of “but..but…but.. THE CHILDREN”

Anonymous Coward says:


It means exactly that, what else open means?


PACER is available to anyone who registers for an account.

The nearly one million PACER users include attorneys, pro se filers, government agencies, trustees, data collectors, researchers, educational and financial institutions, commercial enterprises, the media, and the general public.

If it is not open it is not useful, if people can’t make it their own to make use of it, that data is not open.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Big fan, but.....

“While I can certainly understand your outrage and concern about a “chilling effect”; when I read the title, it certainly implied that there was some precedent set. I was halfway done with the article when I read there was none. “

I think the point of the title was that the case is a precedent in causing a chilling effect and accepting the privatisation of public data. I don’t see how the use of precedent in that context is misleading.

“more of faint flickering of things that “might” come to pass, IF a bunch of bogus legal arguments are accepted by a court. “

The article seems to, if anything, suggest that these legal arguments wouldn’t be accepted by a court. The issue of a chilling effect is the prohibitive nature of expensive lawsuits forcing a settlement, not on the possibility that a lawsuit may be successful.

‘Since its a crime reporting fight, I’m surprised there were no shouts of “but..but…but.. THE CHILDREN”‘

The thing that pisses me off most about this story is the evident failure of authorities to provide useful data as a matter of duty, especially in the absence of reliable official statistics. “But..but..but.. THE CHILDREN” is the kind of sentiment that should support this data being freely available.

NullOp says:

Public Data

Crime data is certainly important and should be readily available to the public. As someone interested in genealogy I am somewhat outraged that the public data concerning births, deaths and marriages is held hostage by companies like This data should be made available on the web by our government not some private company. Why? WE ALREADY PAID FOR IT ONCE IN OUR TAXES! Now, thanks to some cozy arrangement, we are required to pay for the data that has already been collected by our government. Screwed again!

Anonymous Coward says:


BTW, there is an entire industry(i.e. Nielsen) that use scrapping to make it millions each year are you going to sue them?

It is a multi-billion dollar industry too.
They are also the darkside of scrapping, because they collect public private information and sell it for all kinds of purposes.

Also scrapping is used by the government and enforcement agencies.

I don’t think you actually know how far that rabbit hole goes, because if you did you wouldn’t be surprised that courts are upholding those decisions.

It is in their interest too, to not outlaw scrapping.

By that logic, publishing a book would make the contents publically available and able to be scraped. It’s a very, very poor judgment.

No, people wouldn’t be able to scrape a book that is copyrighted, only those things that are not, like data, lists and etc.

Anonymous Coward says:


Stop trying to justify monopoly. Monopoly never has been the most efficient way to deliver goods and services, and it never will be.

Note that if it truly is public data, that would suggest that no one would be able to have a monopoly on it. Walled-gardens only work when there is an enforced monopoly on the information, or when the value added in the walled garden clearly exceeds what is available anywhere else.
The consequence of the ruling is that you have to compete on the basis of how useful and “user-friendly” your site is.
You can’t merely claim that because you published public data first that you now own it.
You never owned it in the first place.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Rick Santorum and AccuWeather

Given today’s ever more onerous and repressive political climate, we may seem more attempts at privatizing public data. Back in 2005 Rick Santorum, a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, introduced legislation to prevent the weather service from providing weather information that private companies provide, such as AccuWeather. Senator aiming to nix federal weather forecasts enjoyed AccuWeather money.

Privatization is a bad idea.

MrWilson says:


Silly freetard. Don’t you know that our benevolent copyright overlords own everything? Also, it’s illegal to give anything away for free, even if you got it for free. Everything must have a price!

Wait… crap. This is in the bill we just wrote and passed off to our Congress-drones. This isn’t law yet, technically, but you should start acting like it is because it’s only a matter of time (and money).

Anonymous Coward says:


Thank you, Miff. It seems these debaters don’t quite understand copyright.
For the rest of you, copyright allows exclusivity to the EXPRESSION of information, not the data itself.
via Wikipedia’s page on Feist v. Rural:
“In regard to collections of facts, O’Connor states that copyright can only apply to the creative aspects of collection: the creative choice of what data to include or exclude, the order and style in which the information is presented, etc., but not on the information itself. If Feist were to take the directory and rearrange them it would destroy the copyright owned in the data.”

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