November: Don’t pay too much for that photocopy!

2022 Columns

How much does it cost to copy one piece of paper? If you ask records custodians in Wisconsin, many will tell you 25 cents. At least that’s what they charge.

Is that number accurate? Commercial printers charge half that for small jobs, and bulk printing jobs can get as low as two cents per page. One would assume that they are making a profit, even at this low rate. So why do some public officials charge so much?

Most custodians haven’t actually calculated their per-page costs. Instead, they use 25 cents because they look around and see other government agencies charging that much. That price likely goes back to the Attorney General’s Compliance Guide, which until 2018 said that “anything in excess of $0.25 cents may be suspect.” Custodians saw that as permission to charge up to 25 cents, so many did.

But state law says custodians can only charge the “actual, necessary and direct cost of reproduction.”

What does that mean? It means they can’t make a profit. It means they should be looking at what they actually pay for supplies, using receipts. It means the costs they charge must bear a direct relationship with those they incur.

As an attorney who specializes in open government legislation, I deal with this issue all the time. Last month, in a case I litigated against the town of Worcester, in Price County, a judge ruled that the town had committed several violations, including charging too much for copies.

The town was charging 50 cents per page. The judge determined that the town arrived at this figure by including costs like maintenance, insurance and other computer equipment that were not “necessarily direct and actual.” Using evidence of the town’s actual expenses for paper and toner, we showed that its cost per page was about 1.8 cents.

That low number might surprise you, but it’s in the ballpark of what the Wisconsin Department of Justice in 2018 calculated its per-page cost to be: 1.3 cents. The agency released guidance stating that “copying fees should be based on the actual costs of the copy machine or contract, and the actual cost of paper.”

Sometimes, I hear custodians say that 25 cents includes the cost of labor. But no court has ever ruled labor can be included in a copying charge. And commercial printers – including labor, supplies, overhead, and a profit – charge half that. If it really costs governments 25 cents to print every piece of paper, they should contract those services out and save taxpayers huge amounts of money.

So if you request paper records (remember, you are entitled to electronic copies of electronic records if you ask), and a government custodian tries to charge you 25 cents per page, push back. Show them the attorney general guidance and ask to see their actual receipts for paper and ink or toner. 

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a group dedicated to open government. Council member Tom Kamenick is the president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project.