Licensing and the public domain
A central theme in the GIS Guide to Public Domain Data is data licensing; the emergence of licensing frameworks for spatial data, the types of licenses that are available for data producers and users, and what is means to place data in the public domain. Despite much attention there is as yet no universally accepted definition of the term ‘public domain’. A number of organisations have posted their own interpretations, including:
US Copyright Office: The public domain is not a place. A work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.
UK’s Intellectual Property Office: The body of works not or no longer protected by Intellectual Property rights which are available for the public to use without seeking permission or paying royalties.
Creative Commons: When a work is in the public domain, it is free for use by anyone for any purpose without restriction under copyright law. Public domain is the purest form of open/free, since no one owns or controls the material in any way.
Common to all these definitions are the freedom from royalty payments and the absence of intellectual property rights and copyright restrictions on the use and reuse of the data. During the recent State of the Map US conference in Washington DC, some of the lingering issues regarding data licensing for spatial data were raised again. In his presentation on OpenStreetMap (OSM) Alex Barth of Mapbox discussed some of the current licensing challenges facing the current and future use of OSM data.
OSM data is open data licensed under the Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL), and the cartography in the map tiles and the documentation are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license (CC BY-SA). Common to both licensing frameworks is the share-alike clause that means any OSM data that is updated and improved, or third party data remixed with OSM data, must be shared under the same licensing terms.
For some organisations integrating OSM data with their own private data, or organisations who are mandated to make their data available in the public domain (for example the US Geological Survey), wider use of this data resource is not an option and the benefits of crowd-sourced, free and open datasets like OSM will never be fully realised. For many observers, the only sensible long-term option is dropping the share-alike clause from the OSM licensing arrangements. For others, designation as a public domain data set is the solution. It remains to be seen which licensing path the OpenStreetMap community will choose.