116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - Open government advocates and Iowa's state universities are poised for a fight over whether federal copyright laws pre-empt state laws requiring government agencies to provide public access to state-generated documents and materials.
The staff of the Iowa Public Information Board has found the University of Iowa broke Iowa's public records law by refusing to share its photos and video from the historic 2008 floods with a Cedar Rapids documentary filmmaker.
'Public records were not released as required by Iowa law,” Interim Board Director Margaret Johnson wrote in a report to the board this week. 'The issue is whether invoking federal copyright protection excuses the violation.”
The UI asserts copyright law protects the creative works of its employees. But open government advocates say allowing the UI to keep these records confidential may open the door to agencies shielding all sorts of public records.
'The subject possibilities are endless and it goes beyond state universities,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. 'What's to prevent the Department of Natural Resources from keeping from the public a position paper on water quality or lead shot?”
Doug Krejci filed a complaint with the board in August about the UI declining to release photos and video of the 2008 floods, which caused $230 million in damage to 20 UI buildings.
Krejci, who operates audio, video and web production company Accent Media Inc., wants to use the UI material along with photos and video from other sources, including The Gazette, to make a documentary about the floods that caused major destruction throughout the Corridor.
'You had thousands of taxpayers helping to save your university,” Krejci said about the outpouring of support for the UI during and after the flood, which was documented by 'state-paid photographers” working for the university.
'What better way to honor that?” he said about his film.
There is no legal precedent for this in Iowa, Johnson said, but the UI's legal counsel cites cases in other states.
'Courts have consistently recognized that states and related public entities are entitled to copyright protections in the works they or their employees generate,” according to a July memo by Aimee Claeys, an attorney for the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the UI and Iowa's other state universities. 'The Iowa Open Records Act makes no mention of copyright with regard to public records, and absent explicit statutory language to the contrary a public entity's possession of federal copyright is preserved.”
Of more than 1,500 public information requests in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the UI denied four - including Krejci's - over copyright concerns, the UI said in October.
'Only one case was denied ... because of UI-created copyrighted materials,” UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said. 'The other three referred to other organizations' copyrighted materials.”
The other cases included requests for reports or training materials generated by a third party, but used by the university. In two cases, the UI cited Iowa Code Chapter 22.7(6), which exempts 'reports to governmental agencies which, if released, would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.”
The board meets Thursday in Des Moines, but is expected to table the discussion of Krejci's complaint until at least February, Johnson said.
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