West Virginia Sues to Keep Tax Maps Off The Web

In the they-just-don’t-get-it category, a West Virginia county tax assessor has filed a lawsuit to keep their tax maps off the web.

I ran across this in Slashdot and did a double-take. I then read the linked article on Ars Technica and did something between a double-take and the quizical expression Scooby-Doo would get when presented with a particularly inscrutable poltergeist.

It would seem West Virginia, not understanding the subtle differences between ownership and custodianship of public information, had a death grip on its tax maps. Seneca, a private document imaging company, filed a FOIA request with the state for the tax maps (in TIFF format mind you). West Virginia declined the FOIA request, saying the private company should pay $8 apiece for the TIFFs, for a whopping $167,488. The company sued, the courts sided with the company, and the state had to fork over the TIFFs for a much more reasonable digital reproduction cost of $20.

The company then did something West Virginia was either unable or unwilling to do - it put the tax maps, to quote the good senator from Alaska, in the tubes. For free. The citizenry could view their tax maps online instead of having to drive to their local assessor’s office. If you’ve ever tried to get anywhere in rural West Virginia without a good GPS unit and a set of emergency flares, you’ll understand how much of a windfall that is.

But wait, there’s more.

A county tax assessor in West Virginia has filed a lawsuit in an effort to win an injunction to force Seneca to take down the TIFF images. Yes, you read that correctly. He’s suing to keep the tax maps off the web.

The citizenry is lining up on the side of Seneca, as you might expect, arguing:

When combined with text of other files that contain the entire state’s property assessment data, including the owner’s name, address, parcel identification number, assessed value, and other pertinent information, the maps provide a new level of transparency to the assessment process, thus enabling citizens to monitor the adequacy of plaintiff’s performance of her public duties. For example, does an influential person or company, such as a particular public official or campaign contributor, have land that is assessed at significantly lower value than bordering properties? Can any differences in assessment be explained by differing size of parcel, topographical configuration, and the like?

It’ll be interesting to see where this one goes, as it deals with issues of public information, copyright laws, and fair use. I’m pulling for Seneca. Public servants thinking they have carte blanche ownership of public information is one of my pet peeves.