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Lawsuit against property appraiser could set precedent in GIS cases

A lawsuit filed against Collier County Property Appraiser, Abe Skinner by MicroDecisions Inc. could set a precedent for how counties manage their Geographic Information Systems. But it probably won’t. That’s the analysis given by Jason Spalding, vice president of EmGISt Inc. when it comes to the lawsuit filed by Microdecisions Inc. against Skinner.
“This is an important lawsuit, but I don’t know how much impact it will really have,” Spalding said. “Most Property Appraisers already believe (Geographic Information Systems) are public record and I don’t think they’ll change what they are doing.”
Spalding is monitoring the case and his Riviera Beach company supports MicroDecisions in its battle against Skinner.

MicroDecisions, an Orlando-based real estate information provider, is suing Skinner because he copyrighted the Property Appraiser’s Internet Geographic Information System, or GIS. Collier Circuit Judge Ted Brousseau issued a summary judgment in favor of Skinner earlier this year in the case. A summary judgment means the case is dismissed “with prejudice” and thereby prevents MicroDecisions from suing again. MicroDecisions is appealing the summary judgment and the issue will be heard by the Second District Court of Appeals in Tampa on April 28.
“Now the issue has finally been fully briefed,” said Jon Kaney, general counsel for the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation and lawyer for MicroDecisions. “We’re ready to go.”

GIS has pictures of almost every property in Collier County as it would appear from the cockpit of a low-flying plane. These pictures can be viewed from the Property Appraiser’s Web site at www.collierappraiser.com. From the aerial shots, you can roughly measure distances and identify the footprints of buildings within the boundaries of the property. You can also move around on the map, zoom in and zoom out, and identify owners of other properties.
Skinner claims MicroDecisions can’t use the GIS for any commercial purpose unless it gets permission from the Property Appraiser’s Office. Citing copyright law, the Property Appraiser is requiring companies to get a commercial license from his office that gives them permission to use the GIS maps. The commercial license costs $2,000. Once that is paid, the county will hand over computer disks containing all the GIS maps and grant permission to use the maps commercially.

Lawyers for MicroDecisions say this is illegal because the Property Appraiser is a public office. They allege anything produced by the office is public record and no limits can be imposed on what can be done with a public record that was created using public tax dollars. Kaney has expressed concern that, if Skinner wins the case, it will open up a Pandora’s box with government officials copyrighting more public records to make it more difficult for the public to have access to them.

Attorneys representing the Property Appraiser disagree and say Skinner has the right to copyright something his office produced. They also say the copyright prohibitions don’t conflict with the public record law. Attorney Gaylord Wood, who is representing the Collier County Property Appraiser’s Office, could not be reached for comment. Wood previously has said this case has nothing to do with public records law and people are welcome to get the GIS system; they just have to pay a fee to use it for commercial purposes. Palm Beach County and Broward County have had similar situations. Palm Beach decided to drop its copyright claims last year under the threat of lawsuits while Broward County still has a policy similar to Collier County’s.

Spalding said several companies have discussed suing Broward County, but no one has done so yet.