OpenStreetMap and the Public Domain

Posted by JimmyRocks on 10 November 2013 in English (English). Last updated on 11 November 2013.

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.

Comment from Minh Nguyen on 11 November 2013 at 06:59

Just a small nit: Wikimedia has nothing to do with Wikimapia.

Comment from davespod on 11 November 2013 at 13:50

The outcomes in your scenarios sound about right to me.

IIRC Bing gave their permission for their imagery to be used as an editor background when editing OpenStreetMap, rather than mentioning a specific licence. So, they did not explicitly cite ODBL, perhaps because OSM was going through the licence change process, and could (theoretically) change again in the future. So in effect, for the time being, that limits its use to release under ODBL (until such a time as the OSM community decides to change its licence again, under the rules outlined in the Contributor Terms).

I can see your frustration here. When the law prevents the Government from releasing non-public domain data sets, it means that our more restrictive licence prevents us giving back easily.

Comment from JimmyRocks on 11 November 2013 at 14:14

Minh, Thanks! I guess spellcheck got me!

Comment from JimmyRocks on 11 November 2013 at 14:32

davespod, I like your method of using an account specifically for Bing edits. I read over the original license agreement, and you are correct that no license was specified. It looks like the data is really only allowed to be used in an online editor:

The rights that you have under this agreement are limited solely to aerial imagery use in a non-commercial online editor application of OpenStreetMap maps (an “Application”).

I’m not as sure what this sentence is meant to mean: >Any updates you make to the OpenStreetMap map via the Application (even if not published to third parties) must be contributed back to

If you’re only allowed to use the imagery with an application on, how would you contribute to other sites?

There is some more information in the wiki about the restrictions when using Bing imagery,

At least for US government use, NAIP imagery is released as public domain.

Comment from pnorman on 12 November 2013 at 06:21

Something worth noting is that with a public-domain database you are unable to use most government data. Most governments are releasing data under licenses that require attribution, which cannot be used as public domain data.

Comment from JimmyRocks on 12 November 2013 at 15:26

Paul, thanks for pointing that out. Public Domain is a big deal for the US Federal Government, but most governments around the world, and even local governments in the United States release their data under more restrictive licenses.

I’m not advocating that OpenStreetMap adopts a public domain license or that we create a completely separate OpenStreetMap that is in the public domain. I am looking good way that contributors can add information that can be reviewed by the US Government and incorporated into their maps. This information can then be used to improve OpenStreetMap.

Comment from BFX on 13 November 2013 at 19:54

In my opinion there are the licence change rules. So you can use the redaction bot (if it is public and its licence allows it) to get the data you can use under public domain.

Comment from sabas88 on 14 November 2013 at 06:54

I think this could be solved by updating the contributor terms to provide exception to your “I want my data back!” section in case of government or ngo for example… In these “public service” cases perhaps less bureaucracy is better…

Comment from dieterdreist on 14 November 2013 at 08:58

you have a good point when you mention that actually almost nobody can release his contributions into the PD, because it will most likely be tainted by the existing ODbL data around it (exceptions might be editing in an empty area or surrounded by other PD data)

Comment from tgertin on 8 July 2015 at 01:39

I really liked this article. Has any solution of remedy been found for Government agencies like the USGS and the National Park Service to be able to use OSM data while fulfilling their Public domain requirements?

Comment from JimmyRocks on 26 May 2016 at 11:54

I wanted to post an update on the situation, as we are still working with the same struggle.

We have not been able to use OSM data directly for Public Domain uses, but we have found a few usable solutions.

  1. We can use a tool to determine where people are making changes in parks and determine if changes need to be made in our internal OSM systems as well.
  2. We done a lot of work with conflation and translation efforts, allowing people in the parks to maintain their own data in any format they prefer, and bringing that information into our OSM based system.
  3. We have been exploring the use of crowdsourcing tools to allow people to run conflation tasks from our systems into OpenStreetMap so that our public domain edits can be used by a wider audience.

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