(CN) — The California Assembly on Thursday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill giving the state a copyright claim on public records, overriding vigorous opposition from California newspapers and Internet businesses.
In the legislative body dominated by Democrats, AB 2880 passed by 58-1 despite warnings about the bill’s over-reach and damage to the public’s right to read and share the wealth of information generated by California agencies and local governments, including maps, reports and even videotaped hearings.
Democrats to a member voted in favor.
A lone Republican voted against the measure which would allow California and local county governments to claim a copyright in any work created at taxpayer expense, casting a shadow of litigation over public discourse.
The bill was opposed by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, representing most newspapers in the state, as well as the Internet Association representing web giants such as Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Amazon, E-Bay, Snapchat, Google and Yahoo.
Born from a recent dispute between an ex-concessionaire and the federal government over Yosemite National Park trademarks, the bill’s author on Thursday convinced the Assembly that California should drastically extend its law and claim ownership of all intellectual property created by public employees.
“What this bill does is protect any trademarks and patents and asks the state for those intellectual property items that it has to catalogue and manage those in the best interest of the public,” Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterrey Bay said while presenting the bill for a vote.
With just three minutes of floor discussion, the bill was passed and moved on to the California Senate for a committee assignment that will be announced Friday.
Assemblyman Travis Allen was on the only voice against the bill. A Republican from Huntington Beach south of Los Angeles, Allen argued that federal agencies are barred from copyrighting public works for good reason, urging his colleagues to vote against the bill.
“This presents a serious issue and would grant state government the power to suppress dissemination of government-funded works,” Allen said.
He argued that a series of amendments added to the bill earlier this week do not sufficiently safeguard against state agencies choosing to deny the fair use of public information.
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California publishers association, said he wasn’t surprised that the bill passed but shocked by the lopsided vote. He echoed Allen’s concerns that exemptions, meant to protect requests under the California Public Records Act, don’t go far enough.
In a letter sent on Thursday, the CNPA, Internet Association and the California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill’s author, Assembly Member Mark Stone, a Democrat from Monterey Bay along California’s central coast.
“The California Public Records Act expressly states that it does not limit any copyright protections,” says the letter, rendering the law powerless to override copyright claims by government agencies. “Citizens should not have to beg a state agency for access to government information.”
A day earlier, Peter Scheer, executive director for the First Amendment Coalition in California, described the bill as “a remedy in search of a problem,” and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation has also criticized the bill’s creation of a weapon that local bureaucrats can use to suppress speech.
The proposal was introduced by the Assembly Judiciary Committee in February and cleared two Assembly committees unanimously ahead of Thursday’s floor vote. The bill has been amended twice, with the most recent changes published Wednesday.
Ewert says the publishers association will continue to lobby against the bill as it circulates through the Senate and that he is open to meeting again with Stone regarding possible changes.
In the build-up to the vote, Scheer with the First Amendment Coalition, said the law was certain to be abused by government officials. “I’m sure it’s going to be done with the best intentions initially,” he said, “but I’m also sure it will be abused once a journalist asks for something potentially embarrassing or newsworthy.”