By now, lots of people within the Donald Trump campaign have admitted that even they didn’t really expect to win — and thus they’re scrambling to get things in order to actually, you know, run the damn country. That includes the transition website, GreatAgain.gov, which (to their credit) the Trump team did get up pretty quickly. Of course, some of the reason they were able to do that was, apparently, that they just copied a whole bunch of text from another website, Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition. Now, that site is pretty good, and it’s certainly topical, seeing as the whole project is designed to do exactly this: help Presidents transition power. But that doesn’t mean that a campaign is just supposed to copy the website wholesale.
And, yet, the Trump campaign did exactly that. If the Center were so inclined, it could argue that this is pretty blatant copyright infringement (its website says that the content is covered by copyright, and it doesn’t seem to use an open license like Creative Commons, even though it probably should). There is, at least, a strong argument of fair use here, given the nature of what’s being done here — but it’s not exactly a slam dunk. Of course, it also leads to some oddities, because, in the rush to copy, the Trump campaign seems to have left in references to the Center itself or charts that weren’t copied as well:
One post, titled “Help Wanted: 4,000 Presidential Appointments,” refers to a “chart below” — but the version on Trump’s site has no chart. On the center’s website, those lines are followed by a detailed interactive graphic showing the positions requiring Senate confirmation in the departments of Justice and State.
Another page on Trump’s site, titled “The Offices and Agencies Supporting the Transition,” is exactly the same as a page on the nonprofit’s site — including a reference to “our own Center library.” Both versions link to the nonprofit’s online resource.
On the nonprofit group’s site, the two posts are accompanied by the name of the Partnership for Public Service staffer who wrote them. There is no such attribution on the Trump site.
But that’s not the only copyright problem here. There’s also the fact that GreatAgain.gov has its own copyright notice, in which it is using a Creative Commons license — and specifically the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license, which is pretty permissive. But, of course, it can’t actually claim copyright on the Center’s material that it just up and copied.
And then there’s the separate question of can the Trump transition team actually claim any copyright at all? After all, as we’ve discussed many times, works of the federal government are not subject to copyright protection. But… is the transition site a work of the federal government? That seems like a pretty big gray area, though there’s a strong argument that it’s not. Yes, the website is hosted on .gov, and everyone knows these people will be the federal government in a few months, they’re not technically part of the federal government yet. And given that copyright law already allows the federal government to hold the copyright on works created by outside parties and then assigned to the federal government, it seems most likely that the transition team would be seen as outside the federal government for now.
Of course, it’s unlikely that any of this will matter. The Center for Presidential Transition doesn’t seem that concerned about the copying, and one hopes that there aren’t going to be any issues concerning the copyright status of the transition website, but since there has basically been zero discussion at all about the new administration’s position on copyright, watching how it handles these kinds of situations is important.