Economic Factors Supporting Broad Distribution of Government Data

There are circumstances when providing access to the public at no more than the marginal cost of distribution is appropriate from an economic perspective and others when it is not. Before deciding to accept licensed data subject to some level of reuse restrictions, agencies will need to assess the potential value of the data to secondary and tertiary users against the additional costs of obtaining unrestricted rights. Because the benefits of secondary and tertiary uses may be difficult to quantify, agencies should guard against the temptation to accede to reuse restrictions too readily. Conversely, there is also a danger that government may avoid licensing data for historical or institutional reasons even when it would be rational to do so.

Unfettered public access may be more appropriate where certain fact patterns are present. Although the following guidelines are not intended to be all-inclusive, access at no more than the marginal cost of distribution may be appropriate when

  • There is broad consensus that the resource is needed. Unfettered access to government data is most fitting when there is little or no uncertainty that a particular resource is needed. The best evidence of consensus is a legislative or an administrative mandate specifying the need for the data among broad segments of society in support of social or economic objectives. Under these circumstances, the information has already been deemed of value for society through the legislative process.

  • The data are used for public research. Often, government data are used in basic and targeted research both inside and outside the government to support public purposes. A government agency should obtain broad rights for public dissemination when the geographic data it acquires are likely to be useful in follow-on research and development activities.8 When the broad public benefits of research are clear, it is appropriate for government data to be used for those purposes and, as such, to be provided at


The term open access is sometimes used in this context. See definitions in Chapter 1, Section 1.4.


Even in these cases, however, the government may not wish to purchase the data outright, so that the licensor still may be able to sell products derived from the data to others in the private sector.

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