back to article Southampton Uni slaps IP notice on FOI requests

Secretive management at Southampton University are undermining the spirit of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, if not necessarily contravening the letter. Reg reader and founder of website publicwhip, Francis Irving, draws our attention to a fairly innocuous request to the University requesting details of the "total amount …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Next FOI request,

    What are the actual marks of Wendy's favourite "WOMEN in engineering" students.

  2. Dr Richard

    So ...

    ... publishing the document as a whole or a majority part would be in breach of their IP? But publishing the actual "facts" detailed in the response to the FOI request would be okay? Hmm, lawyers at work here.

    As long as the "facts" are out in the open then who cares about the fancy PDF fonts, layout or weasel words used to wrap them up ... sounds like SU is trying to spread FUD to stop people using the "facts" for fear of being sued for breach of IP??

  3. Richard 118
    Paris Hilton


    There is no such thing as the 'Spirit of the act'. There is the law and there is breaking the law.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    The amount was £206,995.68

    received for 'printer credits' in 2008/2009, for those who'd like to know.

  5. Code Monkey

    As long as it's clear that requestors can use the info...

    OK so I, with my (imaginary) journalist/blogger hat on, request some info from Southampton Uni. I can publish that information in my article, on my blog or whatever, but can't post the doc they sent and link to that.

    That's fair enough as long as they make it clear that I have the rights to do that. If Southampton Uni are unsing this licence biz to suggest that I can't publish a damned thing then they need a slapped botty from the ICO.

  6. Deckchair


    So you can have the data but you can't rip off the work producing it for you. Sounds reasonable to me.

  7. Jimmy Floyd

    @Richard 118

    Christ, I hope you never become a policeman. Or a lawyer. You'd probably do well as a bureaucrat, though.

  8. Trey Pattillo

    intellectual property rights of the public authority...

    There is no such thing.

    I work for a public semi-government agency [between state and local].

    And ALL information of a public organization is "public" information no matter the medium [letter/email/spoken/etc].

  9. Dennis

    Re: So ...

    "sounds like SU is trying to spread FUD"

    Maybe. But isn't it simpler to have a uniform policy to reserve the copyright etc in all documents rahter than trying to create a list of which documents do and don't require IP control. It avoids the opportunity of junior staff making the wrong decision.

    In a similar way the civil service should use encrypted media for all documents rather than saying the canteen menu can be unencrypted while the tax credits database must be encrypted.

  10. Rod MacLean


    Surely you can simply request the information by letter and then when they reply, photocopy or scan the document...

  11. Paolo Marini

    Here comes the Queen

    Your tax return form is copyrighted by the Crown in UK, but you are the author of the information needed for the tax calculations. Who "owns" the copyright on the final work?

    I suppose this is a common problem: Southampton Uni owns the printer paper and possibly have a copyright on the design of the form, but surely they cannot expect to copyright a mere list of facts obtained by adding together a few numbers, like in this case... it's like teachers claiming copyright on the result of their maths exercises...

  12. Jeremy 2
    Paris Hilton

    Re: The amount was £206,995.68

    The amount is useless and virtually meaningless without a second question, being "How much was spent on consumables, paper and replacing printers in the same period?"

    Presumably the requester's intention was to determine whether or not the university was/is profiting from the printer credit system. Unless they already know how much is spent on printing supplies and equipment, you have to wonder why that didn't form part of the request...

  13. Anonymous Coward

    50% Proof

    Of course there is such a thing a 'the spirit of the Act', as there is in all law an indication of legislative intent.

    However claiming that the 'spirit' of the Freedom of Information Act is so broad that it accommodates both the obligation to release of information to the public, and the restriction of information to named members of the public under license is twattery of the highest order.

    The question is, if a MoP refuses the license, are Southampton liable for not fulfilling the request (given that only payment is covered as a condition of fulfilment under ICO rules)?

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Would you like a drink? Did you bring a glass?

    >>So you can have the data but you can't rip off the work producing it for you. Sounds reasonable to me.

    It's a measure aimed at preventing dissemination of the material, but if you'd rather live in a fascist dictatorship...

    Ask yourself, 'how do I prove my facts if I can't publish the evidence'?

  15. This post has been deleted by its author

  16. Waggers

    @Trey Pattillo

    "And ALL information of a public organization is "public" information"

    In the USA maybe, but not in the UK. Ever heard of Crown Copyright? Also, in some cases, publicly owned organisations can compete with each other (and with the private sector) for contracts, and the information they hold is "commercial in confidence" just as it would be in any other setting. And then there's a further distinction between state-owned and state-funded.

    Oh, and by the way, "organisation" is spelt with an "s" on websites :)

  17. Adam Salisbury

    Public Authority

    If they're a public authority and thus funded by us it could be argued we own the copyright anyway. Any publication obtained under the FOI Act should always be spread wide, I'm still amazed the coppers actually have the right system of posting the details of all requests to avoid duplication!!!

  18. Frumious Bandersnatch

    but what about violation of the letter/spirit of the relevant copyright act?

    Surely a mere exposition of facts in response to a specific question doesn't warrant copyright protection? Also, what's the actual legal status of click-through licenses? Obviously content providers would love it if they were enforceable, and love to act as if they have legal validity, but has this ever been tested in court?

  19. Dan 10

    Am I the only one...

    ...who thinks there is an extra bit of naughtiness taking place here?

    The article states that the PDF is copy-protected - I can only think they are using the recent PDF feature which allows you to prevent any text or content from being copy-pasted. So, you can't take the content anywhere without the document itself.*

    Then, however, they state that "taking the information and using it in a document of their own is acceptable, making use of a document which contains not only the information requested but copyright material is not."

    Oh hello! So you can't export the content, but you can't use the content unless you export it! They're trying to wrap this up from both sides, so only the recipient of the FOI reply is privy to the info.

    * = ok, so you can hack the doc, type it out into a separate doc manually, or take a screen print, but they can't do much about those.

  20. ElReg!comments!Pierre


    So in common English, the info is not copyrighted, but the protected PDF document is. And they made it a protected PDF -instead of raw text- in order to ensure that the IP introduced by the fact that it's a protected PDF is not stolen. Of course. The will to threaten hapless punters into not using the info as they have the right to has not played any role, honest guv.

    [rant_mode=ON] It's a bit like the signature most corporate mail system now add at the bottom of all messages, saying "if you received this email by error please delete it, rip your eyes out and go get a lobotomy or we will throw you in jail". If you goddamn spammed me, I am free to forward your poor prose to the whole universe and its dependencies if I wish to, and there's nothing you can possibly do to prevent that, you twats! [rant_mode=OFF]

  21. Andrew 63
    Thumb Up

    Southampton has a mention?

    Cool... my town got a mention. Good old uni being difficult as per-normal.

  22. Nigel 11


    My guess is that it's just standard operating procedure at Southampton, to protect their interests where they have interests to protect, without anyone having to work out for each instance whether that is the case or not.

    However, I do think that they should be obliged to supply a response to a simple request like this on a sheet of paper, should the requestor be unable to open the response in the encoded and DRM'ed form provided. It would, for example, be unreasonable to require him to purchase a software license from a multiply-convected monopolist corporation resident in the USA. Can this sort of PDF be read using free software?

  23. Nigel 11

    Point to ponder

    Southampton might also care to ponder, that by providing information in this form, they have sacrificed plausible deniability, should their answers later turn out to be inaccurate or downright wrong. Sometimes these things cut both ways.

  24. Nick 6

    Bad smell

    Whether, in this context, the FOI act is a "good thing" or a "bad thing", and regardless of whether they have a right to control this particular material or not, it all smacks of cover-up and a continued attempt to control information which they are required to provide.

    I'll remember this next time the legions of donation requesting phone monkeys attempt to tap me up for another contribution to the alma mater's coffers.

  25. mordac

    Not New

    Central government has done this before too. The one I've heard of was someone trying to use FOI to obtain details of all 'A' and 'B' roads in the UK, to assist with the OpenStreetmap project.

    DTp released the data, but reminded the requester that such information was Crown Copyright, and could not be redistributed, so OpenStreetMap volunteers have had to re-survey the roads themselves, or use out-of-copyright Victorian maps.

    The Information Commissioners Office confirmed that DTp (or any other public authority) were completely within their rights to impose whatever restrictions they chose on distribution of the info that they released.

    The only thing that surprises me is that other public authorities don't pull this kind of cunning stunt on FOI queries.

  26. Magnus Ramage


    "Oh, and by the way, "organisation" is spelt with an "s" on websites"

    Often, but not always. Organization is a frequent spelling also, and contrary to popular belief it's not necessarily an Americanism. The OED uses the Z form consistently for that and similar words, saying that:

    "But the suffix itself, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek -izein , Latin -izare; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic. In this Dictionary the termination is uniformly written -ize."

    But a lot of people favour the -ise form, frequently loudly; and on the whole I think it looks better for many words.

    Can we have a "slightly irrelevant pedantic point" icon?

  27. Anonymous Coward

    Freedom of Information Act (the clue's in the name...)

    Wow, that's messed up. Certainly appears, to this humble observer, to be the SU trying to subvert the spirit of the act, and spread some FUD to discourage dissemination. The law needs tightening to slap down this kind of shenanigans.

    Maybe someone with enough cahoonas will deliberately publish one of their 'protected' documents, so as to invite a test case. If they think their wacky policy is defensible, let them prove it in court.

  28. Mike007

    erm... S

    just add a note to the bottom of the request stating you would like the response in any open standard non-proprietary file format, they are legally required to comply (they have to supply the data in a format acceptable to the applicant where reasonable, see section 11)

    supplying the data in an unacceptable format is the same as refusing to supply the data, and you just wait until the deadline and send it straight to the ICO to appeal their refusal to meet their legal obligations

  29. Shadow Systems

    Dear Idiots.

    This was a *FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT* request.

    There's a REASON it's called FREEDOM, and that's because it's my RIGHT to know WTF you're doing with MY tax-money-sponsored activities.

    You can take your protected PDF & EULA, and cram them RIGHT up your kazoo.

    I won't even bother opening the PDF, but drop it straight to the printer, put the print-out into the scanner, and OCR the print-out back into my computer.

    Watermark? Gone.

    Protected PDF? Not any more.

    EULA? What EULA? I read no such thing, and certainly didn't agree to your BS attempt at limiting my RIGHTS under the FOIA for the data.

    Then I shall make available the original protected file AND the unprotected copy, in a single ZIP file, and redistribute it as far & wide as I possibly can.

    And if you try and stop me, I'll sue you for violating my Right to Free Speech.

    My Right to the data & Right of Free Speech trumps your desire to limit my Speech & disseminating the data.

    It's OUR data, WE paid for it, so you can KMA if you think we won't spread it far & wide.

    And I'm not even on the "right side of the Pond".

  30. Deckchair


    Because you can reference the freely and publicly available information, you just can't publish their document.

    Put away the hysterical fascism bat please.

  31. Nick 6
    Thumb Up


    Nice one, didn't realise that was the case, much better reaction than the general bitching and moaning about them trampling information which wants to be free.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But, hang on a minute...

    They say "Applicants are entitled to use that information" in any way as long as they don't copy the document. Fine in a ni-picky, pedantic, idiotic kind of way.

    But then they say that the reason for all this nonsense is "to protect the privacy of personal information contained in responses". But, if we can do what we want with the *information* how is it protecting the privacy of personal information? This makes no sense. I suspect the dead hand of a team of lawyers behind this.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    I suspect the dead hand of a team of lawyers behind this.?

    I suspect not, more a further power grab by someone looking to establish their status...Along the lines of iSolutions power grab, including trying to subsume H.R. and claiming the right to dismiss people for writing anything on-line that might bring them or the University into disrepute, without H.R.'s involvement!

    Their (iSolutions) heavy-handed attempt to surpress academic's and their academic freedom to comment however has not gone un-noticed.

  34. James Pickett

    Next question

    Perhaps the next FOI request should be for how much are they spending on legal services. And how much has it gone up lately..?

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