Supreme Court Holds GIS-Formatted Database is a Public Record that Must be Produced under the California Public Records Act

In Sierra Club v. Superior Court (2013) __Cal.4th__ (Case No. S194708), the California Supreme Court held that Orange County cannot charge a licensing fee for GIS file format records requested by the public. Under the California Public Records Act, this information must be produced upon request at the actual cost of duplication. A database meets the definition of a public record when it can be disclosed without any accompanying software.

Background and Procedural History

Orange County maintains a large database of information about land parcels in a geographic information system (GIS) file format.  With this database, called the “OC Landbase,” a user with appropriate software can create a layered digital map containing information for over 640,000 specific parcels of land in Orange County, including geographic boundaries, assessor parcel numbers, street addresses, and links to additional information on the parcel owners.  In June 2007, Sierra Club sent a letter to Orange County requesting a copy of the OC Landbase pursuant to the California Public Records Act (PRA).  Sierra Club planned to use the information to determine the status of large areas of open space in Orange County, including whether each area is protected from development by conservation easements or public ownerships or is threatened by a proposed development. Sierra Club’s request began a lengthy exchange between the two parties concerning the public record status of the OC Landbase.

In 2009, the County agreed to produce records containing  the information underlying the OC Landbase, including assessment rolls, parcel maps, tract maps, survey records, lot line adjustments, and transfer deeds, but only in Adobe PDF electronic format or as printed paper copies. The County took the position that the PRA did not require it to disclose the same records in a GIS file format and that it would provide the records in that format only if Sierra Club paid a licensing fee and agreed to the license’s restrictions on disclosure and distribution.  The County claimed that the licensing agreement enabled it to recoup a portion of the substantial costs it incurs to develop and maintain the OC Landbase.

Sierra Club sought a writ of mandate from the superior court to compel the County to provide the OC Landbase in a GIS file format as a public record for a fee covering only the direct cost of duplication, with no requirement that Sierra Club comply with the licensing agreement.  The County claimed that the OC Landbase was excluded from the PRA’s definition of a public record because it fell within the statutory exemption for “computer software,” a term that includes “computer mapping systems” under Government Code section 6254.9. Sierra Club pointed out that 47 of the state’s 58 counties provide access to GIS-formatted parcel base maps as public records, and argued that the request was for electronically-stored data, not software. Sierra Club would have to use its own GIS software to access the data.

The superior court issued an order denying the petition for writ of mandate, holding that the OC Landbase in a GIS file format was part of a “computer mapping system” and thus exempt from the PRA’s general rules of disclosure.   The court of appeal affirmed, finding that while the statutory language ambiguous, the legislative history supported the County’s argument.  The Supreme Court granted review and reversed.

Supreme Court’s Decision

The court began its opinion by emphasizing “the strong public policy of the people’s right to information concerning the people’s business (Gov. Code §6250) and the constitutional mandate to construe statutes limiting the right of access narrowly (Cal. Const. art. I, § 3, subd. (b)(2)).” Because of this, “all public records are subject to disclosure unless the Legislature has expressly provided to the contrary.”

After reviewing the statutory language and legislative history, the court found that it was ambiguous whether the terms “software” and “computer mapping systems” referred to information similar to the OC Landbase in GIS file format. When drafting the bill that created the exemption, the Legislature had amended the bill to specifically remove a reference to “computer readable data bases” in the definition of “software.” But in another statute written 9 months prior to Government Code section 6254.9, the Legislature used the term “computer software” to mean not only a program or sequence of instruction, but also related data. The fact that software has evolved significantly since 1988 when the term was used in the statute created a challenge for the court in determining legislative intent. More recently in 2004, the Legislature defined “computer software” as “a sequence of instructions written in any programming language that is executed on a computer.” The court also noted that the ordinary meaning of “computer mapping system” is the mapping software, not the database.

Moreover, Government Code section 6253.9 subdivision (a)(1) mandates that “the agency shall make the information available in any electronic format in which it holds the information.” The court noted that almost all data that is stored in computers is formatted to be used with application software. The court did not believe that the Legislature, given this mandate to produce information in an electronic format, would have intended to exclude large categories of computer databases merely because the files they are formatted to be read and manipulated by mapping and graphics software.

Because the legislative intent was ambiguous, the court chose to broadly construe the PRA in a way that promotes access to information as required by the California Constitution and Government Code. The court noted that a narrow interpretation of “computer mapping systems” would be consistent with a 2005 opinion letter issued by the Attorney General, which explained that the term in the PRA applied to computer programs but not compiled data. Since the County did not have any additional reasons why the information should be exempt from the PRA, the court held that the County must produce the OC Landbase in response to Sierra Club’s request in any electronic format in which it holds the information at a cost not to exceed the direct cost of duplication.