[Talk-us] Public Domain Non-GPS Data Question

Russ Nelson russ at cloudmade.com
Wed Feb 25 06:04:48 GMT 2009

A good summary,Chris, and I incorporate your disclaimer by reference.   
It's all very complicated, made more so by supreme court decisions  
which make it clear that facts about the world are not subject to  
copyright.  You can't copyright the blue of the sky.  It simply is;  
not something anyone created; and without creativity, copyright law  
simply doesn't apply.  All that does is drive the decision point to  
the creativity expressed in a dataset.  Clearly there is much in OSM,  
in the choice of tags that someone puts on the data.  You would think  
that the law of a country would be in the public domain, and ours is,  
sort-of.  Westlaw numbers the pages of these public-domain laws, and  
lawyers and judges make reference to these page numbers.  Somehow they  
managed to convince the Supreme Court that they are being creative in  
the order of the numbers, the size of the pages, the location of the  
numbers on the page, etc, all of which ends up being copyrighted.  So  
you can GET the laws themselves in the public domain, but in order for  
them to be useful, you have to buy them from Westlaw.

All of that exposition is to let you know that creativity can be  
judged on some pretty bare characteristics.  Parcel locations are a  
fact of the world.  So are the parcel owners.  But who knows, maybe  
the format of the shapefile is considered to be copyrighted?

Unless it's:
   1) the work of U.S. Government employees, or
   2) has no copyright and predates the US entry into the Berne  
Convention, or
   3) explicitly licensed under a license compatible with OSM's  
license, or
   4) has had its copyright expire (a complicated topic; when  
registration was required, so was a renewal mid-way, plus the  
copyright duration has been changed several times).
then you can't use it.  Even when you do, you should always import a  
dataset under a dataset-specific username.  That way, if it turns out  
that the importer was incorrect about 1, 2, 3, or 4, the data can be  
removed.  The law recognizes the concept of an innocent infringer --  
where you thought you had permission to use a work -- but you have to  
immediately stop copying if you want a judge to believe that you're  

On Feb 24, 2009, at 11:23 PM, Christopher Schmidt wrote:
> * US Government Work: Public Domain
> * Florida Government Work: Public Domain
> * Most places: Can get *access* to GIS data -- often for a fee,
>   occasionally for free.
> * Many places: GIS data is considered copyrightable
> * Any places not specifically mentioned: Unless there is
>   a clear statement of rights that makes it clear that it is okay to
>   OSM, it's best to ask. Even *if* there is, it's often still best to
>   ask, because it can help you get your local GIS people interested in
>   OSM.
> One more time: This is personal opinion, does not reflect on any legal
> opinion, nor on the legal opinions of MetaCarta or any of its
> subsidiaries or stuff like that. Just want to make clear the  
> distinction
> between 'free' as in 'access' and 'free' as in 'license'. Generally
> speaking, if you have to pay for the former, you're likely going to  
> run
> into someone who's arguing against the latter...
> Regards,
> -- 
> Christopher Schmidt
> MetaCarta
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Russ Nelson - http://community.cloudmade.com/blog - http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/User:RussNelson
russ at cloudmade.com - http://openstreetmap.org/user/RussNelson

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