Sunday Life rejects police copyright claim on FOI disclosure

Belfast’s Sunday Life newspaper has rejected claims by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that a Freedom of Information Act disclosure could not be published because it was subject to copyright.

The paper revealed that PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde had claimed almost £84,000 in expenses between 2004 and 2006. The figure had been released to Jimmy Spratt, a DUP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, under FOI.

When the PSNI’s head of corporate affairs told Spratt that the information was protected by the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act, Spratt was incensed and passed the document to the paper.

“The information was disclosed, but they said you can’t pass it on to anybody else – it’s for your eyes only – which doesn’t really seem to chime with FoI,” said Sunday Life deputy editor Martin Hill.

The paper published the expenses after Walter Greenwood, the co-editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and a legal adviser for Sunday Life, said the PSNI’s claims were without foundation.

“It was totally absurd for the PSNI to claim copyright on the chief constable’s expenses,” Greenwood said.

“There’s no copyright on information.”

Many public bodies routinely note that FoI disclosures are subject to Crown copyright.

But Greenwood said there are many grounds on which a paper can publish the contents of such disclosures, including if it constitutes fair dealing for news reporting or if it was in the public interest.

“The [copyright] law is there to protect creative works, not facts per se, which is of course what a Freedom of Information disclosure is,” said Hill.

Greenwood and co-editor Tom Welsh are stepping down as editors of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists this week.

The pair have been co-editors of the standard media law textbook for journalists for 30 years.

The new editors will be David Banks, who has been a joint editor for the past two editions of McNae’s, and Mark Hanna, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s department of journalism.

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