Maps Aren’t Paintings: A Discussion About Data Licenses

When it comes to open-source map data, licenses like the one used by collaborative mapping group OpenStreetMap (OSM) are important. They ensure that anyone can use the map data in a commercial or non-commercial capacity, as long as the user provides the proper attribution and releases any improved data under similar circumstances.

When OSM began looking at its licensing arrangement over the past few years, the issues generated a surprising amount of discussion for what may be seen by many as a pretty dry legal topic. On April 1, OSM switched from its Creative Commons license to a new open Open Database License, which affords better protection for information in databases.

Kate Chapman, treasurer of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, has written about the issue on her blog and took a few minutes to talk to Communia over email about the change, how it’s working out and what digital volunteers should remember when collecting and creating data.

How/why is licensing an issue for groups working with OSM data?

OSM was founded on the idea that most “free” maps are not actually free. There are many maps that are free to use, but only in specific ways. There is other information that is not available at all for certain regions or types of data or groups of people.

In OSM, we think that free maps can only be truly free only if they comply with the Open Knowledge Definition (OKD). The OKD imposes general conditions on knowledge so it can be used by anyone, anywhere, for anything.

But believing in the concept of openness is not enough to guarantee it. In the case of OSM, we enforce a license (either CC-by-sa or ODbL) to guarantee that anyone, anywhere, will be able to use OSM data for anything. Both these licenses can be summarized in two points:

Attribution: Give credit where credit is due.
Share-alike: Allow others to use your data as you are allowed to use OSM data.

What does this mean to groups working with OSM data? Two things: Please put “Data © OpenStreetMap and Contributors” somewhere in the small print. If you improve the OpenStreetMap data, then you must make it available back to the community.

For the uninitiated, what exactly is being licensed?

Licenses either release or assign rights to both the creator of a work, as well as those that would use that work. For example when an author writes a book they automatically receive copyright for it (at least in the United States). Let’s say they want others to be able to modify the text of the book or distribute it on a blog, the author could individually give permission for this use or they could use an already existing, readily available license. An example in this case is the Creative Commons license; there are different levels of permission for them. An author could choose if their work could be used commercially; if they needed to be credited when the book was distributed; or, if someone modified the book, if the changes would be required to be available. Along with having an easy template for distribution of their work, these types of licenses also attempt to “smooth out” the legal differences among countries. A good example of this legal difference is why ODbL is necessary.

In the United States you can’t copyright facts. For example you can’t copyright the facts in the phone book, [but] you can have a right to the specific model of phone book you are distributing. However, if someone wants to recreate the phone book that has the same information as yours, there is nothing you can do about it. There are some companies that pay people to reenter information from the phone book, for example, and then sell the data digitally. In Europe, when you build a database you are given protection called “sweat of the brow,” meaning rights are assigned based on the work put into creating the database. ODbL accounts for these differences specifically to data so the data can be freely distributed.

Why the licenses change for OSM?

Intellectual property is tricky. Until a few years ago, maps were legally treated the same as paintings, because for years cartographers literally painted maps on canvases. But with the advent of modern technology, maps are no longer paintings: they are huge sets of computerized coordinates that reflect reality as accurately as possible.

The first OSM license, CC-by-sa, is good if you consider that maps are paintings, but no good if you consider maps as sets of factual data. The new license, the ODbL, applies specifically to databases.

To understand this, imagine a house rental contract and a car rental contract. You cannot drive a house around or fill up your house with fuel, so it makes no sense to sign a car rental contract if you’re going to rent a house. In the same way, it makes no sense to use CC-by-sa on a database.

What changes were recently made with the license and how did the transition go?

The transition is actually still ongoing. As the license is being changed from CC-by-sa to ODbL there is some data that cannot remain in the OSM database—removing that data is a technical problem that is taking some time. The change from CC-by-sa to ODbL is because CC-by-sa is not recommended for licensing data. CC licenses are for creative works. Databases of facts are not creative works and ODbL is specifically designed for databases. The next version of CC-by-sa (version 4.0) is currently being worked on and one of the goals is to align it to be able to protect databases.

What should digital volunteers remember when using information that exists under a license like ODbL?

When volunteering to collect/create data, it is important to consider both the usage of the data and how it will be used and distributed in the future. In the heat of a crisis most do not care about data licenses, since lives are immediately at stake. When recovering and preparing for disasters though, it is important to think about how the data will be kept free in the future. I believe it is important to create ecosystems around data, meaning bring together governments, citizens, non-government organizations and companies so that everyone can benefit. This is not always possible under a non-open license.

As a volunteer one may want to think about what the data you are creating is being used for: Does just one company profit? Can you use the data you created as you wish? Who else can use the information? Is the community the data is about going to benefit from it?

In general, do licensing issues become more difficult when working international, as you have done in Indonesia?

The hope is that data licenses, such as Creative Commons or the Open Data Commons licenses, will make this easier. For example, the text of the Creative Commons licenses have been translated into Indonesian and there is work currently going on in the country to show artists how clearly licensing their work can benefit them. It is difficult though; licenses come from the idea of intellectual property. Legal and cultural differences between countries mean many people won’t care about licensing, which doesn’t protect their rights or create clear guidelines for use of their information in other countries. Without protection it can be difficult to start a business; for example, you are not ensured that a competitor won’t use your information in an unfair way. Using standardized and globally recognized licenses, such as CC-by-sa and ODbL, saves us the trouble of creating and harmonizing custom licenses along languages, countries, and jurisdictions.

It sounds like the new ODbL licensing agreement is easier for doing work outside the US?

ODbL actually made things legally clearer in the United States. The Creative Commons licenses were not appropriate in the United States because of the inability to copyright facts. The license also did not work well in Europe because it did not take the European Union database directive into account. Still, having a clear license that works internationally can certainly help.


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