Print depicting the following: In the foreground the personification of politics (Politia). She is holding a text board with a list of commandments and warnings. Political and legal notebooks lie around her. In the background a church room with a preacher (?) in a pulpit. The print has a Latin caption and is part of a series of prints about human activities.

Democratising Public Databases

FragDenStaat – a German transparency initiative fighting for freedom of information – has published the law gazette for executive orders and other decrees by the German government, which is currently paywalled. And the project won‘t stop there.

In Germany, civil society often faces problems accessing government documents that are locked behind paywalls. Instead of making this important resource available to the public, the German state has a long history of cooperating with private companies that maintain document databases against remuneration by end users.

Usually, these public-private partnerships lead to the state not carrying any costs for publishing official documents while companies like Wolters Kluwer, Juris, Beck or the Bundesanzeiger Verlag charge end users for access.

A prominent example for this are law gazettes: Whether regulations on work safety, health insurance tariffs, directives on the use of police tasers or guidelines for pesticide applications – every year, the federal authorities issue numerous legally binding regulations in all areas of society. But citizens have to pay for access. This December, FragDenStaat changed that by publishing all issues of the Federal Gazette of Ministerial Orders (German: Gemeinsames Ministerialblatt or GMBl) since 1950 – a total of 2,713 documents!

The Federal Ministry of the Interior is the editor of the gazette. However, it is published by a private publishing house owned by the billion-dollar Wolters Kluwer group. Wolters Kluwer charges €1.70 per 8 pages for individual copies of the documents. If you were to buy all official issues of the GMBl with a total of 63,983 pages individually from the publisher, it would cost a whopping €13,596.

Investment protection vs. Public domain

So far, the publisher has prohibited the publication of the law gazette. On what grounds? It doesn‘t hold the copyright to the official documents.  Instead, it argues that the database of the law gazette is protected under related rights („Leistungsschutzrecht“ in German).

This leads to the state publishing binding regulations in documents that are in the public domain, but still not publicly available without a paywall. A private billion-dollar publisher earns money referring to an alleged investment protection for the database. An absurd construction, but still quite convenient for the Federal Ministry of Interior as it has zero costs and hardly any effort for the publication.

We at FragDenStaat are willing to take the risk of being sued for the publication of the law gazette as we believe that official documents of general interest belong in the public domain – not in the hands of private publishers. Free access to documents is not only lawful, but also necessary. So by publishing the most important state databases, we make available to the public what is already theirs. We will continue to open up more public databases in the next months.

We are optimistic that this will change the official behaviour: Four years ago our campaign „Offene Gesetze“ („Open Laws“) helped freeing the Federal Law Gazette in the same manner. All laws of the Federal Republic of Germany are published in the Federal Law Gazette. Laws only come into force when they are published there. Back then, the publisher was the Bundesanzeiger Verlag, which was privatized in 2006 andbelongs to the Dumont publishing group. Anyone who wanted to search, copy or print out federal law gazettes needed to pay .

After we published the documents as freely reusable information, the Federal Ministry of Justice decided to publish the Law Gazette on its own open platform. This is what should happen with the GMBl now as well.

The declassified documents can be found in the “FragDenStaat Library”. It is supported by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

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