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County of Suffolk v. Experian Info. Solutions, Inc.: Tax Maps Can Receive Copyright Protection If They Are Original Compilations of Facts

A New York federal court recently considered whether a county's tax maps are copyrightable.

In 1974, the County of Suffolk, New York ("County") designed tax maps ("Maps") reflecting the size, location, and ownership of real property in each of the County's political subdivisions. The Maps contain all of the boundaries dividing the County into various districts. The Maps are updated annually, with over twelve volumes containing maps for 500,000 parcels within the County. The County had up-to-date copyright registrations for the Maps, and each one had a notice of copyright affixed to it. The County made the Maps available for use by the general public.

Sometime around 1998, Experian Information Solutions, Inc., copied the Maps onto CD-Roms and also made other copies of the Maps. They made these copies available for sale. Experian was bought in 1998 by First American Real Estate Solutions LLC (collectively, "Company").

The County filed a lawsuit against the Company, claiming that it infringed on the County’s copyrights by publishing the Maps without a license and without the County's consent. In response, the Company filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the Company's motion to dismiss.

In its motion to dismiss, the Company had made three arguments that the County could not claim copyright protection for the Maps. The first argument was that the Maps lacked originality because their form and content was fixed by state laws and regulations. Originality of the work is a requirement that must be demonstrated by one claiming copyright protection. Citing a United States Supreme Court decision, the court found that compilations of facts can be entitled to receive copyright protection when the author decides what facts it will use and how to arrange these facts’ (Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Serv., Co., 499 U.S. 340, 111 S. Ct. 1282, 113 L.E. 2d 358 (1991)). The court also looked at two federal appellate courts’ opinions. In one case, the Fifth Circuit found that a county's tax maps could receive copyright protection, relying on Feist. The court also discussed an opinion from the Second Circuit, in which one map company sued another map company for copyright infringement. In that case, the court found that while maps in general are copyrightable, the location of such things as streets, water and other physical characteristics contained in the maps are not; therefore, there was not an action for copyright infringement. Here, since the County claimed that the Maps contained a large amount of original material, and since maps can be copyrighted, the court declined to dismiss the lawsuit on this ground.

The Company next argued that the Maps were not entitled to copyright protection because the Maps themselves were within the public domain. The Company argued that prior cases have determined that certain government publications, such as statutes and judicial opinions, are not copyrightable. This is because first, these works are paid for by the public; second, the notion of democratic process requires that these documents be available to all citizens; and, finally, due process requires that people have notice of laws so that they may obey them. The court rejected this argument for the same reason it rejected the Company’s first argument, because original compilations of facts within the public domain can receive copyright protection.

The Company’s final argument was that New York's Freedom of Information Law ("Law") prevented the County from owning a copyright on the Maps. The Law requires that state agencies make all records publicly available, except for certain records to which the public may be denied access. The County argued that it had met the requirements of the Law because it had made the Maps available to the public upon request. The court agreed with the County and also declined to dismiss the lawsuit on this ground. Therefore, the court allowed the County's lawsuit against the Company for copyright infringement to proceed.

County of Suffolk v. Experian Info. Solutions, Inc., 2000 WL 628731 (S.D.N.Y. May 15, 2000) [This is a citation to a Westlaw document. Westlaw is a subscription, online legal research service. If an official reporter citation should become available for this case, the citation will be updated to reflect this information], vacated, 261 F.3d 179 (2d Cir. 2001).

Note: To read more about the Feist case and about MLS compilation copyright cases, visit the Case Summary Search Page and select subtopic, "MLS Compilation decisions."