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Sharing is caring – especially with government documents. Jason Staten/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Budget papers are free to share, thanks to Creative Commons

Amid the intense discussion surrounding the release of the Australian government’s budget 2014-2015 one notable feature of the budget documents has seemingly gone unremarked by most commentators.

The budget papers (1-4), budget overview, portfolio budget statements and Treasurer’s budget speech have all been published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia (CC BY) licence, as indeed has the entire budget 2014-2015 website.

While the budget documents have been published under a CC BY licence each year since the 2010-2011 budget, this year for the first time tables and data from the budget papers and portfolio budget statements were also made available in the form of Excel (xlsx) and machine readable CSV files on the Australian government’s portal (and again, these tables and data have been provided under a CC BY licence).

So what does the CC BY licence mean – and why has the Australian government adopted it so widely in recent years?

What’s meant by CC BY?

Creative Commons licences are a standardised suite of six licences that may be applied to any work protected by copyright and associated rights (such as database rights), as we explained in our earlier article on The Conversation (which operates under a CC BY-ND licence).

They are free, easy-to-use legal tools designed to facilitate making copyright materials available to the public so they can be legally shared, remixed and reused.

The CC BY licence is the least restrictive (or most permissive) of the six CC licences as it permits restriction-free use of the material to which it is applied, requiring only that the original work be appropriately attributed.

Budget papers are now available under the least restrictive Creative Commons licence. AAP/Lukas Coch

The CC BY and CC BY-SA (attribution-share alike) licences are regarded as open licences under the Open Definition developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation, and are the only CC licences used on Wikipedia.

A core component of open government

The release of the budget documents in both text and data form under the CC BY licence enhances access to budget information by the public and the media, and makes it much easier for it to be shared, analysed and represented visually.

Significantly, it indicates the Australian government’s continuing commitment to providing open access to government information that can be legally provided to the public, with value-adding public data sets being published on the portal.

Distributing these materials under a Creative Commons licence – CC BY being the default licensing position – ensures that they are not only accessible but can be used, shared and reused.

Since 2008, Government departments and agencies Australia-wide have progressively applied CC licences when distributing their information and data.

Departments responsible for creating and publishing important data collections - Geoscience Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Bureau of Meteorology - were early adopters of CC licensing. They were followed by the Australian Parliament and the ComLaw legislative website.

Like the Australian Government’s portal, the data portals developed by the Queensland, South Australian, Victorian and New South Wales governments provide their datasets under CC licences., CC BY-SA

How are CC licences relevant to government?

In carrying out their functions, governments create and deal with a vast and diverse array of copyright materials. These range from legislation and parliamentary documents to cultural and historical artefacts, databases of statistical, mapping, meteorological and scientific data, official reports and publications, and archived public records.

Copyright protects much of the creative, cultural, educational, scientific and informational material generated by federal and state/territory governments and their various departments and agencies. Government-owned copyright is often termed “Crown copyright”.

The introduction of digital technologies saw government materials increasingly being created and distributed in digital form, along with the digitisation of public records and archival holdings.

It also saw an increasing demand from citizens, business and the public sector itself to be able to access, use and reuse government information and materials.

Web 2.0 technologies spurred Gov 2.0 initiatives as governments responded to calls for greater openness, transparency and accountability.

While budget documents are still printed and distributed, they’re made available online when the Treasurer makes his budget speech. AAP/Alan Porritt

Accompanying these developments was a growing awareness of the centrality of government information for innovation and public policy. There was also the need to address the challenges presented to government as owner, user and custodian of copyright materials in the digital era.

But the existing models of information management and copyright licensing were not realising the potential offered by the networked environment.

Pricing practices and a multitude of different – often incompatible – licences created gridlock and blocked the flow of government information. Copyright was being relied upon to restrict access to information, acting as a barrier to innovation and new opportunities for reuse.

The CC licences were not developed with the intention or any expectation that they would be used on copyright materials created by government or with government funding. Yet their potential in this context quickly became apparent to those who had been grappling with how to overcome the obstacles presented by cumbersome licensing practices and rent-seeking behaviour.

When the CC licences were launched in Australia in 2004, frustration with existing licensing arrangements for government copyright materials led almost immediately to attention being focused on their suitability for application to government materials as a way of overcoming the recognised impediments to access, use and reuse.

Preliminary investigations by a Queensland government team, working closely with CC Australia on the Government Information Licensing Framework (GILF) project confirmed the relevance of CC licences in relation to government copyright.

Further research and consultations established that open content licensing offers a simple, cheap and uniform method of releasing government copyright material, which can be easily implemented without legal complexities and transactional cost.

It aligns strongly with fundamental democratic ideals in that it is a non-discriminatory and transparent mechanism for distributing government information and data.

A.Diez Herrero/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Acceptance of CC licence as default

The adoption of CC licensing on material released for public information by Australian governments was first formally recommended by the National Innovation System review committee in Venturous Australia – Building Strength in Innovation in 2008.

It was also recommended by the Victorian Parliament’s Economic Development and Infrastructure Committee in the report on its Inquiry into Improving Access to Victorian Public Sector Information and Data in 2009.

The Government 2.0 Taskforce took the next important step, recommending in its report Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0 in December 2009 that the Australian government should distribute its copyright material under CC BY as the default licensing position.

This recommendation was accepted by the Australian government in 2010 and has been implemented in the Statement of IP Principles for Australian Government Agencies.

The IP Principles for Australian Government Agencies go on to explain that when considering which licence to use, Creative Commons or other open content licences should be the starting point.

The principle that CC BY should be the default licence for government materials is also stated in the IP Manual, the Guidelines for Licensing Public Sector Information for Australian Government Agencies and the Principles on Open Public Sector Information issued by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner in 2011.

The adoption and establishing of CC throughout the Australian government in only a few years bodes well for those ahead as more government documents become available. Budget papers are just the beginning.

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