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OpenStreetMap and the Public Domain

Posted by JimmyRocks on 10 November 2013 in English (English)

OpenStreetMap and the Public Domain


I've been giving a lot of thought to how OpenStreetMap data is being used in government and how the government can contribute data back into OpenStreetMap.

The USGS and the National Park Service are both interested in using crowdsourcing as a way to improve their datasets and contribute back to the public. I have worked with both of these projects, and I am interested in ways to share the data with the larger public while maintaining accuracy and the public domain license.

The United States Federal Government and Public Domain

Works produced by the United States federal government are not able to be subject to copyright protection. These works can be used in licensed datasets, and can be resold, but they must be originally released in the public domain.

OpenStreetMap and its ODbL License

All contributions to OpenStreetMap are licensed to the contributor and the contributor agrees to share them with the rest of the OpenStreetMap community using an ODbL License. The purpose of the ODbL License is to encourage people using the data to release their data under the same license. This license is very open, and is a good fit for a project like OpenStreetMap.

Licensing Issues between OpenStreetMap and the US Federal Government

The problem comes up when an organization like the United States federal government wants to use this excellent source of information. If the government uses data from OpenStreetMap contributors without the individual permission of each contributor, the government can no longer release its data in the public domain.

Some relevant parts from the license agreement:

4.2 Notices. If You Publicly Convey this Database, any Derivative Database, or the Database as part of a Collective Database, then You must:

a. Do so only under the terms of this License or another license permitted under Section 4.4 You may not sublicense the Database. Each time You communicate the Database, the whole or Substantial part of the Contents, or any Derivative Database to anyone else in any way, the Licensor offers to the recipient a license to the Database on the same terms and conditions as this License

A Public Domain OpenStreetMap

There is a group of OpenStreetMap users that are interested in creating a Public Domain version of OpenStreetMap. This group believes that the ODbL license can negatively affect usage of the data. One interesting idea that they have is that they would be able to import data contributed by users who elect for all their contributions to be in the Public Domain. I think this would pose a lot of problems, and I'll explain my concerns in more detail in a list of scenarios.

[x] I wish my contributions to be available as public domain

There is already a checkbox on the OpenStreetMap website when a user signs up for a new account that allows the user to claim that all changes under that account are in the public domain and the OpenStreetMap wiki describes why someone might want to do this. This is seen as more of a political statement than any actual licensing. From the wiki link above:

If you declare your contributions to be in the Public Domain, you are thereby making a statement only. You will not actually be changing the license or what people can do with your data

By selecting the PD option, you basically say: Hey guys, do this ODbL thing if you must but don't go over board with it, I consider my contributions PD and would rather get mapping than think about what is allowed and what not.

I want my data back!

However, OpenStreetMap does provide a way to get your data back in your own license, which you can then relicense to public domain if you want. In the OpenStreetMap Wiki, there is an FAQ about the license that describes a situation where this is possible:

Can I get permission to distribute OSM data under an alternative licence?

The copyright to OSM data is vested in the individual contributors. If you happen to use data provided solely by one or a few OSM contributors, you can ask them if they are willing to provide their data to you under a different license.

##Sounds great! But... But this brings up a couple questions about what it means to be provided solely but a select group of contributors.

Does this mean that as soon as a person outside of the approving group edits the information that the data can no longer be used?

What about data traced from Bing or Yahoo maps? Does the agreement OpenStreetMap has or had with these services transfer to other types of licenses?

Even if someone else doesn't edit the data directly, since the edits were (most likely) done through an OpenStreetMap interface, does it qualify as tracing or using ODbL licensed OpenStreetMap data to create your work? If so, does that make your work derived work as well, and thus falling under the ODbL license?

In the Optional public domain licensing wiki, the issue is brought up that there will be problems with derived data. The wiki doesn't try to deal with this issue, instead they (rightfully) make licensing an issue for the contributor.

We do not need to solve it [the slight problem with derived data] - people who wish to take PD subset of data will be responsible to identifying which of the data are PD and which are not

Whose node is it? Whose Way is it?

There is a short wiki about node ownership that explores the idea that node ownership is very hard to determine, and that it may lead to problems with licensing. This situation was explored during the license change, but the real issues with it never became a problem since the majority of contributors accepted the new license.

Issues with derived data

There have been some issues with this in the past, most notably with a website called Wikimapia. Wikimapia was providing an OpenStreetMap layer to its users, and OpenStreetMap turned off their tiles because of the possibility that users could then trace OpenStreetMap data into the Wikimapia dataset, which is released under an incompatible license (and contains a lot of information traced from Google Maps / Imagery without authorization from Google). More Information on that debate can be found at the following links:


I'd like to give some scenarios and explain what I think would happen in this case based on the way the licenses are written. I would love any feedback, and will update this document as feedback comes in, and hopefully some of these answers can be added back to the OpenStreetMap wiki.

Scenario 1


A user creates a building in OpenStreetMap tracing from NAIP imagery.

Note: You can add NAIP imagery to iD with the URL:{z}/{x}/{y}


The user retains full copyright to this contribution and can relicense it as public domain.

Scenario 2


Another user comes along and corrects part of the building made in Scenario 1.


The original contributor maintains copyright to the points (nodes) he or she contributed, but the new point, and the polygon (way) now will require both contributors to agree that they can be relicensed under public domain.

Scenario 3


A user adds a new road between two existing roads based on local knowledge.


This contribution references existing contributions, and therefore can be considered a derived work. It can only be licenced under public domain, but only if the owners of the referenced contributions and any contributions that they have referenced can all agree to relicense their contributions.

Scenario 4


A user heavily edits and area using Bing imagery


The Bing imagery was agreed to be used with the ODbL license, and traced data can only be relicense into the public domain if Bing creates a separate agreement allowing the user to do this.