Information relating to legal rulings allowing The National Archives to sell access to public records

FOI request reference: F0046018
Publication date: June 2016


I would like to find out what law/legal ruling or permission has allowed the National Archive to sell access to public records to private companies, and how this was justified against the public funding used to collate and preserve this material prior to it’s sale to commercial operators.  Please give legal/Hansard etc references. Many thanks




Thank you for your enquiry of 3 June, regarding access to public records held at The National Archives which have subsequently been digitised.

I can confirm that we hold information relevant to your request. We are happy to provide this information to you.

No legal ruling or permission is required for the digitisation of open public records. The National Archives has a legal obligation to make these records available to the public free of charge at our site at Kew ; however, because not everyone is able or willing to visit us in person, and because there is an increasing desire on the part of the public to view images of records from home, we are committed to making as many records as possible available online.

Digitising our records is a hugely expensive and time-intensive task, which would be beyond the capacity of The National Archives to address alone. For this reason, we offer opportunities for commercial partners – such as,, among many others – to work with us in widening online access to the records we hold through digitisation.

Each of our commercial partners is required to fully fund the investment in the digitisation, cataloguing, indexing, hosting, delivery, technical support and marketing of Online Services of our records. In return, they may charge their customers a fee to view the full transcriptions or images of digitised records. The National Archives does not pay for any part of the development of the service, but receives a royalty based on a percentage of net invoiced revenue from the Online Service. We retain this revenue and use it to fund future digitisation projects. All rights granted to commercial partners are non-exclusive: alternative services can – and in the case of the historic censuses, do – exist, although all are produced on a fee-paying basis.

The principle of paying for value-added services from Government is well established. The National Archives operate our own online services, providing access to original records (such as Digital Downloads via our Discovery service) and a fee is still payable to cover the cost of providing the service in these instances, just as it would be to order a copy of a document from our Record Copying Department, or to ask us to conduct a search of an open file.

Please be reassured that we take our access obligations very seriously (for example, by ensuring that a range of cost effective and non-recurring charging options are available to suit a wide range of customers and budgets, as well as negotiating free search functionality on behalf of users). The full scope and remit of the functions performed by our commercial partners are clearly set out in the Terms and Conditions which customers must accept prior to purchase.

If you are dissatisfied with the handling of your request or the decision which has been reached, you have the right to ask for an internal review.  Internal review requests must be submitted within two months of the date of this response and should be addressed to:

Quality Manager
Public Services Development Unit
The National Archives

You have the right to ask the Information Commissioner (ICO) to investigate any aspect of your complaint.  However, please note that the ICO is likely to expect internal complaints procedures to have been exhausted before beginning his investigation.

Yours sincerely,

Freedom of Information (FOI) Manager
FOI Centre
The National Archives