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September 1, 2004

Logging on: How Do You Apply the Public Records Law in a Computer Age?

Must government bodies provide access to data processing software when public records are maintained on computers?

In this computer age, more and more public records are contained in data processing software. The public is entitled to copy public records. But can the public access the data processing software that contains the public records? How does the Public Records Law balance the public right of access to public records with the government interest in protecting data processing software? What can be charged for access to the software?

Keep these principles in mind:

  • Discretionary Access: A government body "may provide, restrict, or prohibit access to data processing software developed by the government body. . . ." Iowa Code sec. 22.3A(2). The Public Records Law allows - but does not require - a government body to provide access to data processing software developed by the government body.
  • Additional Charges: A government body may recover direct publication costs, including "editing, compilation, and media production costs" incurred in developing the software and transferring the software to another person. Iowa Code sec. 22.3A(2)(a). This charge is in addition to charges for the public records.
  • Written Justification: On request, the government body shall "provide documentation which explains and justifies the amount charged." Iowa Code sec. 22.3A(2)(a).

In summary: Data processing software developed by government bodies and the public records the software contains are treated differently under the Public Records Law. The public can always copy open records, but may not be able to access the software, or may pay additional charges to do so.

Sunshine advisories are a general resource for government officials and citizens on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws – our "sunshine” laws.  Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

The Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) is an independent board that the Iowa Legislature established specifically to address open meetings and open records-related matters.  The IPIB provides information to the public and governmental entities on "sunshine" issues.

The IPIB, which has jurisdiction and authority to investigate and enforce Iowa's open meetings and open records laws, enables citizens to file a complaint if they believe that someone is violating these laws.

Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings should contact the Iowa Public Information Board. Iowa Public Information Board.

Wallace Building, Third Floor
502 East 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319


Phone: 515-725-1781

Updated December 1, 2014

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