Update 11/17/08 9:00 pm: The BBC has chimed in with an excellent summary of the issues at in the battle between the OS and Google. Google apparently called the BBC: to stress that they believe Ordnance Survey has misrepresented its terms and conditions. They say that when we hand over data to Google Maps, they are not claiming ownership of that information, just the right to crawl it and use it for marketing purposes. I’m not sure that will settle the row. Well if that’s the case I wonder then why don’t they just change the TOS?
Why is Britain’s OS and the British mapping community in an uproar over the Google Maps TOS and why should you care?
In this battle of acrimonious acronyms, the Google Maps Terms of Service is being called into question and it highlights significant problems with Google’s Map API TOS that can affect all of us. The conflict also highlights the difficulties that a government agency confronts when it is asked to perform like a business.
Regardless, it certainly is affecting the future of all API mashups in England particularly those in the public sector that use the British Government’s Ordnance Survey (OS) data.
For example, it means the police are breaking the law (according to the OS) for their Google Map based crime maps, because they use OS boundaries.
Should a for profit entity be allowed to profit from government data for free?
Should a government agency restrict use of public data?
The Ordnance Survey (aka the OS) is Great Britain’s national mapping agency. According to their website, their goal is providing the most accurate and up-to-date geographic data, relied on by government, business and individuals. Their funding model:
We aim to satisfy the national interest and customer need for accurate and readily available geospatial data and maps for the whole of Great Britain in the most effective and efficient way (data and maps of Northern Ireland are provided by Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland). Ordnance Survey and its partners seek to be the content provider of choice for location based information in the new information economy by:
Collect, portray and distribute the definitive record of the natural, built and planned environment of Great Britain, meeting customer need and the national interest in the most effective manner.
Ordnance Survey is required by the Ordnance Survey Trading Fund Order 1999 (SI 99/965) to recover all of the costs of collecting, maintaining and disseminating data to users, together with funds for investments and to meet financial obligations to HM Treasury.
The essence of this is that the OS is required to charge for its data: Ordnance Survey earns revenue to meet its financial obligations by licensing Intellectual Property Rights in its data, maps and information, under Crown Copyright.
Google’s Maps API Terms of Service (aka TOS)
(b) You give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to access, reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute business listings data contained in Maps API Implementations. For example, if you create a store locator application, Google may use the business listings information from the store locator to improve the Google Services such as Google Maps and local search.
There was a recent government sponsored contest to highlight potentially creative uses of government geo-data. There were cash awards to the agency/group presenting the best ideas, many of which used the Google Maps API in their solutions. The Ordnance Survey alerted the anyone using any of its data that they would be in violation of the OS’s terms if they used Google’s API (this applied to Yahoo & MS as well). A Guardian and Ed Parson’s (of Google) blog entries brought this issue to the general public.
The conflict has arisen because Google, the epitome of optimal capitalist behavior, is attempting to gain information at its lowest possible cost i.e. Zero. They are also attempting to limit any future liabilities by shifting the onus of licensing clearly on the maker of the mashup. The Ordnance Survey, while nominally a government agency, is not funded with tax dollars but by sales of their data. The contradictions inherent in profiting from intellectual property rights are highlighted by this conflict.
The OS is forbidden by statute to allow the use of their data in any activity that would prevent them recovering the costs.
The upshot: Google is making their role in this perfectly clear. If you use their API, they have a perpetual right to all data you have provided and you assume all risks for assuring that the data is yours to give away.
The OS is clearly stating that given Google’s position, no government or private entity has the right to use the OS’s data in a Google API.
One presumes that the British Government sees the gathering of digital data as a national priority and perhaps even a national security issue (like GPS in the US).
The are several possible resolutions in this particular case and the most obvious is that Google could simply change their TOS to not have these rights in perpetuity. But that doesn’t really deal with the issue of whether a given mashup creator has the rights to even use the data.
– Google could pay for the right to use OS data that is being presented via the API by licensing it.
– The OS could be funded by tax dollars rather than being required to sell its data to stay afloat
It appears that neither is about to happen. As the Guardian writer put it: “It will be a cold day in hell”.
What do you think? Does it affect your plan to use Google’s Maps API? Should the government agency give all of its data to Google for perpetual use for free? Should a government agency be in the business of selling data and protecting intellectual property rights?
This conflict also raises issues as to the role of government vis a vis business and income generation in a capitalist society and the question of the role intellectual property rights.
I am no expert on the British mapping scene, intellectual property, the Ordnance Survey or other British customs, so feel free to chime in here with facts, background and philosophical points to help me out.
For those of you that are just coming to this issue, here are a number of links to catch up on all of the issues:
Overview of immediate issues:
•Guardian Blog Post
•Ed Parson, Google’s Geospatial Technologist in England, Post