A Question of Data Ownership

By Larry Walsh  |  Posted Tuesday, December 11, 2007 16:12 PM

The State of Maine is going to court to reclaim a public document that fell into private hands, citing a statute that says a public document remains public until it is expressly released by the government authorities.

The document in question: An original copy of the Declaration of Independence, delivered to the town of Wiscasset in 1776 as part of a campaign to inform the then-Colonists of their freedom from the British Crown. According to the New York Times, the precious document was sold several times as part of the estate of Anna Plumstead, who died in 1994. Her father was the Wiscasset town clerk for 1885 to 1929, was likely charged with Declaration's custody and, like many officials of his time, stored the document in his home. Hence, how it came into Plumstead's hands and ultimate in the private domain.

The document is now owned by a Virginia collector who bought it at auction in 2001 for $475,000. Maine officials are taking the collector to court to reclaim the Declaration, of which there are only 11 known copies remaining, the New York Times reported.

OK, why am I writing about this? Because it got me thinking about who actually owns information if users--even in an official capacity--are careless with the custody of digital documents.

Security vendors and practitioners alike are constantly harping about the problem with data leakage, a problem that presumes the organization has custody over documents. What if the documents are carelessly released? What if a user posts a sensitive document to his blog because he wants to test the waters of an idea he had? What if the document is inadvertently e-mailed to an unintended third-party without disclaimers?

Some would say that's the whole point of data leakage prevention or what some are coming to call data lifecycle protection. Yet, this court case got me thinking about the claims to information that's left in the public domain and whether organizations have the right to retroactively claim ownership and protections. Think about it: corporate Web sites broadcast all sorts of unclassified information that may seem innocuous, but could be reconstructed into damaging intelligence. Does the organization have a right to go to court and stop the use of that information by a third party?

Legal experts don't know if Maine's claim to the Wiscasset Declaration of Independence will stand up in a Virginia court. It will be interesting to see if this retroactive claim has merit and if it will serve as an example of contemporary custodians of digital documents.