Innovation & Nachhaltigkeit Leben & Arbeiten Debattenbeitrag

Public interest information policy in Germany: challenges and opportunities

Terms such as ‚knowledge economy‘ and ‚information society‘ have become central in the political landscape of contemporary Europe. Advances in computing, telecommunications and media technologies have had profound and wide-ranging effects on the ways we live and work.
Growth in the production of knowledge and knowledge-based services has changed the socio-economic makeup of most European countries.

The OECD suggests that many leading economies can be increasingly be characterised as ‚knowledge economies‘ – or economies in which knowledge is the key resource. A 2007 report indicates that knowledge production – including research and development, education (public and private) and software – accounts for around 4% of Germany’s GDP, a 0.4% increase from 1997 [1]. The adoption of new communications technologies is increasing rapidly. The EU i2010 project, the European ‘policy framework for the information society’, states in its 2007 annual report that nearly 60% of the population in Germany are ‚regular internet users‘ up from 44% in 2003 [2]. Along with these changes come unprecedented opportunities to improve education, to accelerate and improve the quality of research and to increase citizen participation in public life. This report will look at how policy-makers can support such opportunities in three key areas: public sector information, publicly funded research and the public domain.

Public Sector Information

The European Council Directive 2003/98/EC, ‘on the re-use of public sector information’, defines Public Sector Information (PSI) as any content or data produced by official public bodies – including ‘social, economic, geographical, weather, tourist, business, patent and educational information’ [3]. The directive strives to ensure that EU member states adopt policies and practice that facilitate the re-use of this information. While access to official information is, in principle, well covered by freedom of information laws – what is at stake here is allowing content and data to be re-distributed, built upon, and combined with other sources of information.

Why does this matter? While citizens can access multitudes of content on official government websites, and are able to use existing legislation to request documents that are not already published – the time required to do this can be prohibitive, and a high degree of familiarity with the operations of public bodies is often presupposed. New technologies allow the development of web and mobile-based services which deliver meaningful and relevant knowledge to citizens, according to their situation and their interests.

To give a contemporary example, in the UK the charity mySociety develops simple services to improve the relationship of citizens to government institutions. TheyWorkForYou allows users to enter their postcode and discover who their MP is, as well as their voting record, what they’ve said in parliament, their expenses and a statistical overview of their political positions. FixMyStreet lets people identify municipal problems – from potholes to broken signage – and to publicly track the response of their local authority. WriteToThem makes it easy for people to contact their parliamentary representatives – and has carried over 400,000 messages since it was launched in 2005.The growth of social networking websites, mobile internet platforms, as well as semantic web and new visualisation technologies enable the creative of innovative low cost and high quality services of this kind.

In February 2007 the Cabinet Office commissioned Tom Steinberg, the Director of mySociety, and Ed Mayo, Chief Executive of the National Consumer Council, to perform an independent study examining new opportunities for re-using PSI. The report makes 15 recommendations as to how the UK government could encourage innovation in this area – from exploring partnerships with community groups to re-examining PSI pricing and licensing policies. The UK is in the process of pursuing these recommendations and has a flourishing culture of community driven projects and initiatives building on PSI.

The German transposition of the EC PSI Directive came into force on 19 December 2006 in the form of the Informationsweiterverwendungsgesetz (IWG). In December 2007 a German meeting of the ePSIplus project – an EC funded network on PSI – concluded that the implementation could benefit from clarification in certain areas, and identified several issues that need to be addressed. For example, they point to the Federal government’s requirement that Fachinformationszentren act as commercial organisations in order to recover their costs – giving exclusive contracts to commercial partners (e.g. Juris GmbH with court records) and thus preventing other parties from re-using the material. New regulations on spatial data from October 2008 do not allow citizens or citizen driven groups to re-use information without paying hefty fees.

There are some positive signs. For example, the National Statistical Authority of Germany has started to allow others to re-use its data. However, as was raised in the ePSIplus meeting, this is a low profile issue with virtually no public visibility and very little lobbying. The German government has little incentive to act to encourage greater re-use of PSI. The participants in the meeting proposed two positive steps: to push for the creation of a centralised PSI register – so it is clear what information is available, and to request a country-wide and sector-independent PSI report. Steinberg and Mayo’s study could be an inspiration for the latter.

Publicly Funded Research

The ‚open access‘ movement is an international movement to allow access, re-distribution and re-use of scholarly materials – including publications, research data, and multimedia. As opposed to the restricted access of traditional subscription-based journals, or cases where raw data are discussed but not published – open access journals and repositories allow anyone to review, evaluate and build upon scholarly findings. The three major international declarations on open access include one made in Berlin in 2003, which is supported by over 250 scientific organisations – including the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft and the Wissensgemeinschaft Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

In addition to increasing access to research – particularly in developing countries, where access to repositories or journal archives may be prohibitively expensive – open access is widely held to increase the quality of research, and to encourage innovation. As barriers to access are lowered, readership increases, and hence more researchers are able to scrutinise findings. If raw data and details of scientific experiments are published – then material can be re-analysed and experiments can be reproduced to check for accuracy. The process of peer review can become much richer and research can become more collaborative. Furthermore, allowing researchers to copy and experiment with whole repositories of research publications opens up new possibilities for machine assisted analysis and representation of research corpora – such as using best-of-breed text mining tools to make sense of the abstracts and indexes of hundreds of journals in a given discipline. The senior policy advisor for the Wellcome Trust, one of the UK’s largest funders of biomedical research, says ‘text mining will enable new facts to be discovered that would not be possible by humans’ [4].

The most high-profile case of open access in scientific research is probably the Human Genome Project (GP). In 1997 an international meeting of prominent scientists and research organisations concluded that all DNA sequence information should be ‘freely available and in the public domain in order to encourage research and development and to maximise its benefit to society’ [5]. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Data Distribution Centre is another prominent example of where research data is fruitfully shared. Open access to meteorological and other climate related data is perhaps the most effective mechanism to building climate models that take account of all the available evidence.

In general there is significant support for open access in Germany. At the time of writing there are over 146 open access journals and over 150 open access repositories based at German institutions. Several research funders, such as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), have supported open access in their funding policies. Though open access still has a relatively low public profile, there are traces of discussion in political debate. For example, last month the Green Party recently called for open access at the 27. Ordentliche Bundesdelegiertenkonferenz.

However it’s not all good news. Though there is significant support for open access in Germany -this is not mainstream. Recent amendments in copyright law, coming into force at the end of 2008, mean that authors may have to intervene to retain rights enabling them to deposit their work in open access repositories. Only one institution, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, has a mandate requiring open access – which came into effect earlier this year. Public pressure for more mandates requiring open access to publicly funded research – such as adopted by the Wellcome Trust in the UK, or NIH in the US – could help to keep Germany at the cutting edge in this area.

The Public Domain

After copyright and any neighbouring rights on a given work expire – it enters the public domain, whereupon anyone may copy it, share it, and represent or analyse it in new ways. The public domain includes the vast body of artistic works and historical records – that constitute our cultural heritage.

Numerous efforts to digitise the public domain holdings of national collections have received positive media attention in the past few years. However, more often than not companies and organisations which digitise public domain material assert rights in their digital copies – which restricts the public from re-using and re-distributing the material. A report from the Archivreferentenkonferenz des Bundes und der Länder from March 2008 notes:

‘Archivgut ist öffentliches Gut und – von wenigen Ausnahmen abgesehen – lizenzfrei nutzbar. Dies widerspricht einer breiten wirtschaftlichen Verwertung von digitalisiertem Archivgut durch Vermarktung und Einräumung exklusiver Nutzungsrechte‘ [6].

There are numerous ways in which public domain works can be re-used – from new forms of digitally assisted scholarship to new creative works which remix public domain content, from printed editions with new illustrations to remastered sound recordings. By placing digital copies under licenses which permit re-use, or by dedicating them to the public domain, cultural heritage institutions can encourage innovative re-workings and fresh presentations of historical material.

Internationally, several prominent bodies have begun to adopt more liberal licensing regimes. Recently 16 institutions – including the Library of Congress (US), the Smithsonian (US), the Imperial War Museum (UK) the National Media Museum (UK), Bibliothèque de Toulouse (France), the National Library of New Zealand and the Australian War Memorial Collection – started adding images to the photo service Flickr, allowing people to re-use and to comment on the images. In October 2008 the Library of Congress published a report saying they had an overwhelmingly positive response to the pilot – with over 3.6 million views in the first week and numerous public contributions to the sparse descriptions of the images.

What material is in the public domain at a given time depends on the length of term of copyright law. The EC is currently looking at proposals to extend copyright in sound recordings to 95 years – which would mean a significant increase in the period of time before sound recordings are able to be freely re-used and re-distributed by the public. The proposals have been subject to widespread criticism – particularly from analysts and legal scholars in the UK and the Netherlands. In June 2008 50 leading copyright experts published a statement suggesting that the proposals were in the interests of existing rights-holders, rather than in the interest of the general public . They also suggest that the proposals ignore the empirical evidence of recent legal and economic studies. Germany could play an important role in ensuring a balance between public and private interest in European copyright legislation.

Policy Recommendations

1. Support legislation as well as licensing and pricing policies that support public re-usability of Public Sector Information. The creation of a national register of PSI assets, and the commissioning of a country-wide and cross-sector report would help to inform appropriate activity in this area.

2. Support mandates for open access to publicly funded research. These should target higher education institutions, as well as funding bodies and umbrella organisations.

3. Keep the public domain in the public domain. Encourage publicly funded cultural heritage institutions to allow digital copies of their holdings to be re-used by the public. Encourage the adoption of intellectual property law and policy that takes account of public interest, as well as private interests.



[1] OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2007, <> specifically <>

[2] i2010 Annual Report 2007 <>

[3] EC Directive 2003/98/EC <>

[4] Research Information, July 2006 <>

[5] Policies on Release of Human Genomic Sequence Data <>

[6] Digitalisierung von Archivgut im Kontext der Bestandserhaltung, Archivreferentenkonferenz des Bundes und der Länder, März 2008 <>