OpenStreetMap is published under a share-alike license, the so called Open Database License (ODbL). The license says that if raw OpenStreetMap data is mingled with raw third party data, and the result is used publicly, you are required to release the result under the same ODbL. This is, in short, the share-alike principle under which OpenStreetMap data is available today - under certain circumstances, it extends the license of OpenStreetMap data to data sets it’s mixed into.

Sounds like a great idea at first, right? You’re promoting the idea of opening data by making sure anyone who uses your data opens their data too. Well, there’s a big gotcha: we wind up more often with OpenStreetMap not being used rather than with previously closed data opened up. This in turn hurts the project which thrives on increased adoption.

Photo: Alan Levine

Organizations or individuals who want to mix OpenStreetMap data with third party data often can’t because they aren’t in a position to make licensing decisions on that third party data. The reality is that opening data under a specific license is usually too slow or plain not possible.

Often times confusion about what’s allowed and what is not allowed under the ODbL is just as bad. Ever seen advice opening with “I’m not a lawyer, but…”? That’s what I’m talking about. Ever tried to get an actual lawyer to provide guidance on the ODbL? That’s what I’m talking about. Tried to use the OpenStreetMap Wiki to learn about how the ODbL is interpreted by the licensor, the OpenStreetMap Foundation? That’s what I’m talking about.

The result is that OpenStreetMap is not being used in situations where it should be used, which undermines a project whose success depends on increased adoption.

Not only is OpenStreetMap not being used as much as it could, the assumption that share-alike encourages contribution is a myth. I have yet to meet the individual, company, non profit or government agency who contributes because that’s what the license calls for. And I have yet to witness the troves of data opened under the ODbL in compliance with the license. OpenStreetMap gains no extra benefit from share-alike. The reality is that OpenStreetMap is only used extensively in situations where the share-alike license does not apply, for instance, map rendering.

Here are examples of what should be possible with OpenStreetMap but is not because of share alike:

The Wheelmap community manages wheelchair accessibility information for over 400,000 thousand places in OpenStreetMap. Ideally Wheelmap would be able to syndicate this data into any other map - think Nokia, Google, Apple. Today they can’t because of share-alike limitations of the ODbL. Woulnd’t people using this data on Google maps mean more people with an interest to maintain and improve it on OpenStreetMap since they would know that adding data to OpenStreetMap means adding it to all the maps in the world?

Currently, New York City building and address data is being imported into OpenStreetMap (disclaimer: I’m involved). Ideally the government of New York City would just copy changes from OpenStreetMap to help maintain their own datasets - but they can’t. Many datasets managed by government behind closed doors today should just be managed by the same maintainers on OpenStreetMap tomorrow - with gains for everyone. Think of the US Census Bureau whose TIGER data we’re all benefiting from. This vision of citizens and government collaborating around OpenStreetMap is severely cut short by the ODbL. Governments will never use OpenStreetMap in an extensive way until they can make it part of their workflow, and as long as the ODbL taints any data that touches it, it can’t. Look at the United States - many government datasets are public domain, government can’t use OpenStreetMap directly because the ODbL is not compatible with it.

And what about exchanging data with our big sister project Wikipedia? We should be copying a lot more data back and forth between OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia. OpenStreetMap could be Wikipedia’s geocoder and gazetteer. And yes, if it wasn’t for Wikipedia’s own share-alike license, we could mine Wikipedia for addresses, phone numbers, home pages, and populations without a bad conscience. Wikipedia can’t use OpenStreetMap because OpenStreetMap is not truly open, and OpenStreetMap can’t use Wikipedia becuase it is not truly open. What better examples of two sucessful open data projects are there than Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap - but we are not open enough for our data to touch? This makes no sense.

If we dropped share-alike, nothing would stop players like Google or Apple from mixing OpenStreetMap data extensively into their mobile maps. And this is a good thing. OpenStreetMap’s opportunity is not to compete and win against the Google Maps of the world, but to say what’s on their maps. With adoption on established mapping platforms OpenStreetMap would instantly reach many millions of users with its data, drastically increasing the project’s impact and playing a bigger role than stale backfill. OpenStreetMap’s current licensing is stunting our growth - and diminishing the impact of all of the amazing data that we have.

Under the current license, these example cases are either outright impossible, or require time, good lawyers and programmers to avoid share-alike to infect third party data with the ODbL. The ODbL imposes unnecessarily onerous hurdles at no gain for the project. Worst of all, just the license’s ambiguities kill adoption.

If OpenStreetMap is to turn into the data set that makes geo data a true public good we have to drop share-alike. Let’s make OpenStreetMap data actually open.

OpenStreetMap is at the verge of being the dataset that powers the world, quite literally. What’s between where we are today and making OpenStreetMap the source for global geographic data, is that OpenStreetMap simply can’t be used in many applications where it would be the ideal solution. These lost opportunities matter because they are what keeps OpenStreetMap from having the impact it should have. As Serge Wroclawski succinctly argued in his essay on why the world needs OpenStreetMap, OpenStreetMap’s purpose is to democratize who decides what’s on the map:

Every time I tell someone about OpenStreetMap, they inevitably ask “Why not use Google Maps?” From a practical standpoint, it’s a reasonable question, but ultimately this is not just a matter of practicality, but of what kind of society we want to live in.

OpenStreetMap simply won’t matter if it doesn’t power the applications that millions of individuals use to search, navigate and contextualize each day. The more OpenStreetMap is used, the more impactful each of our work is, and the more incentives we create to join the movement. We should not be afraid of that.

For your reading pleasure: Here’s are the entire 4,000 words of a license we should be throwing out: ODbL 1.0. I will be speaking about this topic at the State of the Map US conference in Washington DC. Join the conversation here or on Twitter.

Comment from cquest on 13 March 2014 at 14:58

I can agree on some parts of this post and disagree on others, but some of the examples you’re using are looking wrong to me.

For example Wheelmap can display OSM POI on whatever basemap, there is no data mix in the process, no problem with ODbL.

The problem we’re facing is how to be more open (allowing a mix with public domain datasets) and at the same time prevent massive use of OSM data in non open ways (Google, Apple, etc).

The default licence should keep a share-alike condition, but at the same time on a dataset per dataset basis we should be able to remove that condition when there is a real benefit to the project which in my point of view is not the case in general.

In France we have 2 licence trends in opendata: with or without share-alike.

We’re promoting share-alike as it is a benefit for the commons and a virtuous circle.

Ok, this may not fit some business models, but while OSM allows commercial use of the project data, this its not the goal of the project and should become one. Share-alike has not been causing the projet a problem see the large community, the increasing number of reuses, the existing business opportunities around OSM.

OSM value is in its community spending millions of hours creating and improving the data, not in the data themselves. As a contributor, except under some circumstances, I want a guarantee that my work will never be captured, privatized and share-alike is that guarantee.

Comment from MikeN on 13 March 2014 at 15:02

I’ve wondered about this also - something as simple as creating a GTFS feed from OSM data, using road geometries as a basis is a no-go. The reason? If the GTFS feed is made public and Google uses it, the OSM-based road geometries would be a license violation. (In the US, most of those roads had ironically started from TIGER).

Also I worked with a homeowner in a rural community who has been struggling for years to tell the package delivery services where his house is located. We worked for a bit to put his house number and access roads into OSM. I haven’t worked up the nerve to tell him that virtually no one will be using that information for the foreseeable future.

Comment from woodpeck on 13 March 2014 at 15:02

In response, allow me to point to about 10 years worth of discussion on legal-talk that must have been before your time. All your points have been argued, and counter-argued, there already. The truth is - and I say this after having had and having heard long and heated debates about this for years - that there’s something to be said for both sides.

A non-share-alike license has its benefits. It will certainly lead to greater adoption and make things easier, but it could - a scenario often discussed in the wake of the license change - also lead to OSM being ursurped by Google Map Maker or the like. If they import all our data and were to offer a superior mapping experience and even more exposure than we can offer, there would be a danger of mappers switching to that platform, leaving OSM dead in the water and providing (now proprietary) improvements for GMM. Things like this have happened in the past - think of all the fantastic prizes a behemoth like Google could throw out to buy mappers’ allegiance.

I think you’re overlooking one important point in our favour, namely that ODbL is already one big step more liberal than the CC-BY-SA we had before. CC-BY-SA would not even have allowed you to plot your proprietary data on top of an OSM map; this is perfectly possible nowadays and makes possible a lot of interesting use cases, e.g. where artists work on an OSM base map without having to give away their finished work for free. In a way, that was the compromise we agreed on in the license change - less share-alike for produced works, but keep share-alike for the data.

You’re making your point well but - again from having been in these discussions for years and years - it will ring hollow in the ears of a share-alike proponent. What good it is to be “the map that powers the world”, they will say, if along the way you have to betray the ideals that you believe in? They would rather be a map that powers only part of the world, but has stuck to its principles.

Without wanting to take one position or the other here, I do have to object to one point. “OpenStreetMap simply won’t matter if …” - I’ve heard that particular speech too often to be afraid. “Immediate death of OSM predicted, film at 11”. Personally I am quite happy with the role that OSM plays in the world right now and if we don’t change anything, we’ll be just fine.

Comment from SOSM on 13 March 2014 at 15:02

[the following is naturally only my personal reading of the ODbL]

Your basic premise that “mixing” data is an issue is false.

The ODbL specifically allows aggregation of data via the concept of the “Collective Database”, only the OSM derived component of such a database needs to be ODbL licenced.

Only if you actually modify your (proprieitary and other) non-OSM data on the basis of the data/information from OSM is your data subject to the share alike terms. Example: apply road surface tags from OSM to road vector data from a third party, then the result is derieved from OSM data and needs to be shared.

Ir is particularly important to note If you modify OSM data for example by improving the position changing/adding tags, yes, the resulting dataset must be licenced on ODbL terms, but it in no way effects the legal status of your original data such changes may have been based on.

Comment from chippy on 13 March 2014 at 15:03

If only people were having this discussion when the license was being proposed, worked on and voted about…. if only we could go back! Sorry, that was a bit sarcastic, but it’s about hindsight.

So, I think they actually were having this discussion and looking back anyone can see that the OpenStreetMap community overwhelmingly decided to adopt the ODbl license. Contributors even had to explicitly agree upon it! Those who disagreed formed FOSM - based on cc-by-sa. There was no public domain fork. Why was this? Why didn’t the community choose another way then?

So what’s changed now from the times that the community were having the discussions? What are the situations that mark the differences between then and now? Who are the people speaking the loudest, then, and now?

Comment from karussell on 13 March 2014 at 15:06

First I do 100% agree with you! But you should also state somewhere that we would need this to make (easier/more) business out of OpenStreetMap (like you for MapBox). Of course this is not bad!

But I don’t see this happen. This is very similar to relicensing the linux kernel from GPL to Apache or whatever, and due to the massive amount of contributors I fear this is impossible. Also not all OSM people agree with being more open and companies earning and making money, OSM would loose lots of contributors due to this.

If those people would be honest to themself they would realize: the license uncertainty is a mess not only for people using the data but also for the contributors!

Let me explain. Was Apple brought to court? No. Or will someone bring to court if they don’t attribute? I fear no. No one from the foundation actually really cares or has the money to care. And this leads to massive violations of the license/attribution, which is similar to having no license.

Instead I would suggest (like you): make the data more public or find a compromise where attribution is required, but will also be enforced if violated. (e.g. like violating the GPL can bring your company to court)

Comment from giggls on 13 March 2014 at 15:09

This is the same discussion we had in the free Software camp years ago: GPL vs. BSD reloaded (with ODbL beeing more GPL like).

All these licences (GPL, CC-by, ODbL) have this fairness aproch which is kind of “if you use our stuff, then need to give us yours as well”. One might like this or not and one could even consider this non free, but in the end it is only a highly successfull aproach against egoism of cooperations or individuals.



Comment from SK53 on 13 March 2014 at 15:14

There are many points which you elide over.

Here in the UK moving to a less-restrictive licence than ODbL would mean the practical loss of a large proportion of the road network, many addresses and virtually all postcode data.

In France it would eliminate buildings and possibly landuse.

Similar problems will exist in any country where governments maintain copyright over things they produce (hint, there are more of these than the US PD model).

This is because some data have been obtained from open government sources, frequently manipulated and enriched by OSM mappers, but always subject to the original licences of the source data.

This suggestion has been made before (IIRC it was discussed at an early SotM) but has only gained acceptance from a fairly small part of the community (often those most involved in FLOSS activities). You have to explain why contributing to OSM in this scenario will be crowd-sourcing and and not crowd-serfing for major corporations and governments.

I imagine there are plenty of easier ways to achieve some of your objectives: a simple idea would be a waiver for certain organisations from specific ODbL obligations for specific areas or types of data (e.g., NYC Buildings). This would still need some kind of approval mechanism from contributors, but is likely to be orders of magnitude less hassle than going through a change the licence process again.

Comment from ToeBee on 13 March 2014 at 15:21

You mention increased use by governments. Wouldn’t this require full-on public domain (CC0)? You obviously are not a big fan of share-alike but you don’t mention attribution anywhere. I suspect that while a decent number of people might be willing to drop share-alike, a LOT fewer would be willing to drop attribution. So government use seems to be off the table no matter what.

Comment from SimonPoole on 13 March 2014 at 15:23

The comment at was from me (sorry wrong account).

Comment from jwass on 13 March 2014 at 15:24

I agree with everything here.

I’ve also seen first hand what happens when companies want to work with OSM. It freaks out investors and lawyers. And typically the technical team has to pull all kinds of stunts to not mix OSM with private customer data, if it can even be pulled off.

Comment from AndiG88 on 13 March 2014 at 15:37

The Wheelmap […] Woulnd’t people using this data on Google maps mean more people with an interest to maintain and improve it on OpenStreetMap since they would know that adding data to OpenStreetMap means adding it to all the maps in the world?

I doubt it. Most people would use the app and never even realize OpenStreetMap is behind it, if they even use the WheelMap app and not just Googles own app, because it’s at the moment still superior when it comes to routing and searching for locations/POIs. A lot of people didn’t even know google was behind youtube until it required a g+ account.

OpenStreetMap’s opportunity is not to compete and win against the Google Maps of the world

For me personally it’s actually a significant motivation. Google already has several almost monopolies and at least OSM offers a realistic alternative maps, maybe not win, but at least be a viable choice.

OpenStreetMap simply won’t matter if it doesn’t power the applications that millions of individuals use to search, navigate and contextualize each day.

As we like to say in Germany: Kleinvieh macht auch Mist. (≈Many a little makes a mickle)

OpenStreetMap does not need to become the default map. If it is used on thousands of small apps, because the key=value system is superior to using google maps in combination with a database then that we be just as or maybe even more valuable as being the default map. And I think people are more likely to contribute to such small apps, because they usually have a interest in what those are about.

Overall I think you are overestimating the amount of people who would realize OpenStreetMap is running in the back of an application and then start contributing. And why aren’t people out in droves and using the Google Map Maker contributing to the map they use all the time?

I addition it’s a map we are talking about. At some point most of the basic things will be mapped sooner or later. I spend weeks to finish my village, but now it is done and will maybe require a few minutes of upkeep every month if at all. Yes, maybe we could accelerate the process a bit with opening up, but sooner or later OpenStreetMap will reach the goal of being “almost” complete and just reacting to new changes anyway. And long before that time it will already be a viablefor most applications.

Comment from quicky on 13 March 2014 at 15:48

Hi Alex,

I disagree with you. Personnaly I contribute to OSM because of the share alike licence. To take you example about Google using OSM data that will increase the community Im not convinced at all. I think that people would not realize that OSM is behind that and they will only join Google Community to contribute to Google Map data. Without a share alike licence these data will certainly remain in Google DB and not be contributed to OSM one because I wonder what would be the interest of Google to share the data with its competitor whereas it doesnt do that today. So at the end Google would benefit of OSM data but OSM will not benefit from this usage in my opinion. OSM continue to grow so I dont see any reason to fallback in a painfull licence change process that will mostly benefit to "consumers" and not to the project itself. This is an endless philosophical debat like the GPL vs BSD in software and I dont think there is a best solution for everyone.

My 2 cents Julien

Comment from Tordanik on 13 March 2014 at 16:02

Even though I don’t agree with every single argument made in the diary entry, I would appreciate if OSM adopted a different license along the lines of the CC-BY or even CC0 (although the latter is probably not realistic).

It may not be obvious to everyone, but as soon as you try to build something with OSM beyond mainstream use cases like 2D rendering, the ODbL frequently becomes a highly annoying obstacle. I was under the impression that OSM was supposed to enable a broad range of commonplace and creative uses, but the current license hampers that mission.

Comment from Jeff Yutzler on 13 March 2014 at 16:14

Is there a downside to switching licenses? The “pro” argument is usually compelling in a vacuum but I have no idea what the “anti” argument might be.

Comment from JRA on 13 March 2014 at 16:15

According to this blog only 44% of active OSM accounts with at least one edit are PD friendly. It is not enough for changing the license. However, 400000 contributors could be a good start for a new crowdsourced PD mapping project.

Comment from Jeff Yutzler on 13 March 2014 at 16:17

Okay, that comment was clearly OBE! Guess I waited too long to enter it after reading.

Comment from wille on 13 March 2014 at 16:54

In a perfect world, Share-Alike could be dropped, but we yet live in a world where companies spend billions of dollars with patents and other copyright issues.

OSM doesn’t need to be more open, the other map sources that should be.

Comment from Pieren on 13 March 2014 at 16:57

Well, I’m not a lawyer but … I agree with Bart about legal expertise. The argument saying “odbl is complicated, move to public domain” is true in first part but is not enough for promoting the second. OSM could be more widely used if we (or the foundation) could provide a better support to developers, projects or companies questions about the license (better than “I’m not a lawyer but ..”).

Comment from seav on 13 March 2014 at 16:59

As giggls said above, this is the GPL vs. BSD/public domain debate all over again. GPL vs. BSD is hardly resolved in the software world and you can point to success stories for both camps (Linux kernel for GPL, and BSD Unix for BSD, sqlite for public domain) and numerous pros and cons on both sides. The same arguments can be mentioned for OSM as well.

Comment from robert on 13 March 2014 at 17:21

It’s not a good approach to start your post with the title invoking the whole “non-share-alike is more open” thing, which is easily disprovable. Share-alike rules are there to ensure things remain free.

Comment from robert on 13 March 2014 at 17:21

(and just when I was starting to get license debate withdrawal)

Comment from jongleur1983 on 13 March 2014 at 17:34

I disagree in many of your points. Where I agree with you is the issue with documentation and decisions: What’s allowed and what is not? What’s possible, what is not? There’s too less information on that, too less use cases by example in the field of mixing data; but that’s not a problem of the license or one of the share-alike principle, but a problem of documentation and clear communications.

Where do I disagree? You take the Wheelmap as an example. In fact the wheelmap bases it’s data approach on the OSM database as a foundation. It’s not possible to add POIs there but only to mark existing ones as accessible or not. If they would use another foundation for their POIs, even if they would use osm as a background map, sharing these POIs on all maps would be indeed possible. They could even use different POI sources as well and allow marking these with the corresponding accessibility tag; but as far as I know the operators of the wheelmap I guess they in contrast are happy to have a useful application based on free data and free applications, incontrast to what they had in the early stages of their project, where they as far as I remember started by using Google as background map. What’s google maps useful for Wheelmap if you consider missing stairs, steps, footways and so on? Not to mention missing information about the existence on footways etc we are incomplete yet in OSM too of course. Who should use google maps if there are usable, useful apps based on osm data?

You take the example of the public sector that is not using osm because their data is public domain (in the US) and therefore they’re not allowed to publish the mixed database (osm + pd data) under the more open license (PD) again. But what’s the problem? If they have better data they don’t need osm, if their data is worth they should be free to publish the combination under ODbL and their own stuff as PD. Nobody, neither any company nor any government, can control the dataset of osm, so working on osm directly with their database isn’t helpful for any government as long as mappers are free to change the data according to the facts, other tagging schemes or whatever else. So the duplication of the database (one internal, one external, even if the internal is published in the same state) will remain. In some areas Governments in fact use OSM today: for online maps (e.g. the white house, many cities in Germany and so on), for issue reporting systems (missing an example link, but I remember at least one example), maintaining fire hydants internally and many more. What’s perhaps different in the US compared to most parts of the world is, that the public data is even more freely licensed than OSM. In other countries (e.g. Germany) the opposite is the case, and especially in Germany governments often are happy to have OSM as the public data is located at another division/ministry/level of the government and the using agency would have to pay there, too.

About Wikipedia: In fact Wikipedians much less care about licenses of their sources as they count most sources as citation source with less barriers about copyright. As single coordinates, manually taken from OSM are below most barriers according to copyright, this isn’t a problem, but I’m sure - no, I KNOW, that wikipedia even takes coordinates from Google Maps which is far more restrictive licensed. The import from Wikipedia to OSM isn’t that big problem either because most data Wikipedia has is much less detailled than we want it to be, e.g. according to coordinates, so most often we have to check ground truth before, and then looking into wikipedia for inspiration is allowed of course. To complete your argument (as that’s not clear from your article): In fact Wikipedia uses osm as the base map, too.

If we would drop the share-alike, players like Google would pick the best additions from OSM, adding OSM as one of many data sources and even less people would be lead to OSM as possible mappers. In contrast Google nobody would need OSM any more as the google maps would be worth to be corrected by google map maker and the like.

If you drop share-alike, you democratize the data, but monopolize the users to some very few, where OSM might not be part of itself.

To the quote of Serve you gave I would add for many parts of Germany: Because OSM has better and more detailled data. The only thing we don’t have (yet) are aerial imagery we can use directly. We have building that Google doesn’t have in most parts of the world; we have footways google doesn’t have, and we have many more cycleways google lacks of.

Comment from Vincent de Phily on 13 March 2014 at 18:00

You’re welcome to fork OSM data and relicense it as PD. Between contributors who won’t agree to the relicense and imported data that cannot be relicensed as PD, you’ll have to delete a lot of stuff before you can declare your data PD.

The share-alike question has been debated a lot already, but if you want to change the status quo today you’ll need to put in a lot of energy.

Personally, I’d be very happy for Google (to pick a polarising example) to start using OSM data, but not if they can just take it and say “it’s ours”. Crowd-sourcing vs crowd-serfing. Without SA, It’s also quite likely to be a one-time import that really doesn’t benefit the osm data.

The SA requirement make it harder to use OSM data in some situations, but it doesn’t make it impossible. Just don’t merge datasets with incompatible licences, use them in parrallel instead.

We could certainly listen to people/governments who have PD data but don’t want to put it in OSM because of workflow issues (there’s no licensing issue for PD->ODBL). I think that maintaining/curating imported data is the main issue.

I also can’t see how OSM would become irrelevant unless it drops SA. It’s plenty relevant today, we’ve got more contributors than anybody, and we’re growing fast. The future is bright, SA isn’t slowing us down.

Comment from Tom Chance on 13 March 2014 at 18:48

I think, like Simon Poole and Jerry (SK53) that you have misunderstood the license, and misrepresented the situation if we had a non-share-alike license. Some of your examples are invalid, and ironically - given you mention the dreaded ‘I Am Not A Lawyer’ phrase - just spread more misunderstanding.

Your example of TIGER data also makes me value share-alike licenses even more. OpenStreetMap is part of a wider movement aiming to open up data, software, culture and more under free terms. One of the amazing achievements of free software is that it has led government agencies and multinational corporations to collaborate with small companies and individual citizens on software. I sincerely hope we can begin to get a similar dynamic happening with geodata. It would not only be exciting and innovative, but could begin to change the way that government sees its relationship with its citizens, as partners in curating geodata rather than consumers of open data releases. Why throw the towel in and leave OpenStreetMap as just another public domain data source that others can harvest?

Like many others on this thread, I am opposed to dropping the share-alike license, which is more free because it protects and extends freedom. I’ve no problem with others making money off my gratis contributions to the database, but I want them to have to contribute back any enhancements they make to our data.

Comment from amarendra on 13 March 2014 at 22:27

Here’s my TLDR: I, the end user, contribute to the OpenStreetMap and then anyone can use it and not contribute back - that includes corporations. Is that right?

How many people decided this? The promise of OSM was open mapping data and you are practically letting my effort, the open data, to be put to waste by a third party which may choose to close it anytime!

Comment from mikelmaron on 13 March 2014 at 22:59

“require time, good lawyers and programmers” … that’s key to me. Where to invest our time and effort to reach OSM’s best potential.

I agree with a lot of the intention @lxbarth lines up, especially making it easier for governments that have made Open Data open to benefit in kind.

But as we can see from the discussion kicked off here, there’s not really anything with more opinions in OSM than the license. Moving from cc-by-sa to ODbL was a lengthy, frankly painful, process, and while we learned a lot, I unfortunately couldn’t say that any further license change wouldn’t take just as long, or longer. Is this a place to invest time again?

Yet, I think we may be able to get a long way with the ODbL. I think it at least worthwhile to share more details on possible legal interpretations. I remember at SotM-US last year, a productive BoF about licensing. Seemed to me like one question, geocoding into 3rd party databases, seemed close to a workable and widely supported realization. There was a lawyer who was interested and seemed to have some ideas about how it could work.

I know lawyers aren’t really able to share opinions into the commons themselves, just to their clients. I wonder how we could build up a more collaborative, commons of solid interpretations of the ODbL, which would be clear, and make it easier to answer questions without IANAL. This seems doable to me, but I’m not sure how.

Likewise with the workarounds of using OSM in various. Which while not ideal, I think are also solvable. Can we build up a collection of guidance and recipes by people have built real projects using OSM data in license compatible ways?

Comment from pnorman on 13 March 2014 at 23:03

Yet, I think we may be able to get a long way with the ODbL. I think it at least worthwhile to share more details on possible legal interpretations. I remember at SotM-US last year, a productive BoF about licensing. Seemed to me like one question, geocoding into 3rd party databases, seemed close to a workable and widely supported realization. There was a lawyer who was interested and seemed to have some ideas about how it could work.

One of the points out of that session was that the companies involved with issues were going to provide to the LWG a clear description of their geocoding use case on which they were having issues, and this hasn’t happened.

Comment from MapMakinMeyers on 14 March 2014 at 02:07

Wasn’t OSM founded on the concept of free and open data. ‘Open’ data with silly licenses is not open, it is licensed. just my .02$

Cheers ;)

Comment from wonderchook on 14 March 2014 at 04:29

There are two things I’d like to see regarding licensing in OSM.

  1. A clear method showing how a license change might work. The last one was a long a painful process for both the cohesiveness of the community and the people actually doing the change.
  2. I don’t think anyone actually knows what the average OSM contributor thinks/feels about licensing. Maybe they don’t care at all as long as it is “open”. A community survey could perhaps benefit, though maybe only those of us that are passionate for licenses would answer.

In my work with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team there are times where the license is an issue. For example many UN agencies have non-commercial clauses in their data, so simply removing the share alike wouldn’t help. With government there are some groups that do not have issues with the ODbL and certainly others that do, usually depending on how they are contributing or benefiting from OSM.

Basically I’m saying there needs to be more research and a possible path shown. At the moment a license change feels impossible so getting many people on board even with the idea would prove difficult.

Comment from pnorman on 14 March 2014 at 06:45

I would be inclined to give the argument more credence if not for three significant shortcomings

“Less” free

You start by stating that a copyleft license is less free. It is, at the very least, debatable if a license that does not guarantee continuing freedom to use the data and improvements is any freer. It allows anyone to convert the data into a proprietary dataset, taking away freedom.

Ignored costs of a decisive change

You’ve completely ignored the costs of changing the license. I’m not speaking solely of monetary and time costs, but also social costs. If you don’t recall, the license change from CC BY SA to ODbL was highly decisive, took considerable time, and taking such a decisive action has been compared to the project shooting itself in the foot. Any reasonable discussion has been derailed by people insisting on public domain (e.g. because that’s all some governments can work with), completely ignoring the fact that public domain, CC0 or PDDL would render us unable to use most government, company, or crowd-sourced open data. I see this happening again, with you talking about the census bureau.

I did a significant chunk of the work cleaning up data not covered by the redaction bot. It was weeks of soul-draining work and late nights. Any future change that would require us to remove the CC BY-SA/ODbL dual-licensed data in the database would be, by my estimation, worse.

An argument coming from a company with a questionable track record on compliance

When considering Alex’s argument it’s important to consider its context, including where it’s coming from. Mapbox and Mapbox customers have a questionable record on meeting the attribution requirements of the ODbL. We’re not talking about issues on space-constrained mobile apps, we’re talking about full-screen webmaps on a desktop display with no attribution text at all. This isn’t something that’s ODbL specific – a significant portion of open data out there has attribution requirements. Until recently had no reference to OpenStreetMap, despite being based on essentially only OSM data at higher zooms. Even now, it hides the attribution in a means of questionable adequacy.

In conclusion, I found a particularly relevant quote from the Free Software Foundation > Proprietary software developers, seeking to deny the free competition an important advantage, will try to convince authors not to contribute libraries to the GPL-covered collection. For example, they may appeal to the ego, promising “more users for this library” if we let them use the code in proprietary software products. Popularity is tempting, and it is easy for a library developer to rationalize the idea that boosting the popularity of that one library is what the community needs above all.

But we should not listen to these temptations, because we can achieve much more if we stand together. We free software developers should support one another. By releasing libraries that are limited to free software only, we can help each other’s free software packages outdo the proprietary alternatives. The whole free software movement will have more popularity, because free software as a whole will stack up better against the competition.

p.s. Unless you have a special license, you’re not meeting the CC BY-SA license that the photo you’re using is distributed under

Comment from Rovastar on 14 March 2014 at 08:05

Surely your entry can be summed up as I/we are not making enough money of other people’s data therefore you need to open up the data more. I, for one, will not be crying a freaking river about that.

Comment from Minh Nguyen on 14 March 2014 at 08:20

Just want to point out that some of the commenters here are conflating the share-alike requirement (SA in Creative Commons parlance) with the attribution requirement (BY). Dropping the share-alike requirement doesn’t necessarily mean going all the way to the public domain.

Comment from JRA on 14 March 2014 at 08:54

Déjà vu. I suggest to read the PD threads from this archive and think if anything has changed.

Well, SteveC does not write here anymore which is a pity because I liked his style.

SteveC steve at Wed Oct 22 06:50:10 BST 2008

Guys OSM isn’t going PD… can’t you go start or something?

I did not remember that Landon Blake really started to build an OSM/PD repository. We have still a wiki page about that, as well as a dedicated mailing list legal-general that was created for PD discussion.

Comment from andrewwiseman on 14 March 2014 at 17:36

I don’t think this is a money-making issue (necessarily.) For example, if I work somewhere (company, NGO, government, doing research, whatever) and use OSM data in a map (for example, convert it to .shp and use it as a roads layer,) that doesn’t mean the rest of the stuff in the map is thus share-alike, right?

I think that’s the concern – does just using it trigger share-alike rather than including it in a database or merging it with other data to create something different.

Comment from LuisVilla on 14 March 2014 at 23:58

Correction about Wikimedia’s licensing (I’m WMF’s Deputy GC):

Collections of simple facts are not protectable under copyright law in the US or EU, so they are not governed by the CC BY-SA 3.0 license. What is protected by CC BY-SA 3.0 is the creative work: the paragraph describing the city, the picture of the city, etc. So use of simple facts from Wikipedia - population, coordinates, etc. - is not restricted by our license.

Wikidata is licensed by our contributors under CC0 1.0, a public domain dedication which also allows reuse without restrictions.

So I think it is incorrect to say that our copyleft hinders reuse of Wikimedia’s data by other projects - the focus of our copyleft is on creative works, not data/databases.

I don’t mean to leave this comment to say anything about OSM’s policy choices; just to say that it isn’t accurate to compare our copyleft situation with OSM’s.

Comment from mcld on 15 March 2014 at 12:36

I disagree: the share-alike aspect makes the data more free, not less free, and it’s part of why I contribute to OSM. Others have already made that point in this thread.

OSM has been extremely successful so far and I’m sure the community, the foundation etc can help commercial companies to come to an understanding of what you can/can’t/should do in using the data.

Comment from mcld on 15 March 2014 at 12:38

P.S. If you don’t understand the threat of “enclosure” when a free public dataset gets snatched up by a commercial company, look at the history of CDDB.

Comment from Humanist on 15 March 2014 at 16:40

“If we dropped share-alike, nothing would stop players like Google or Apple from mixing OpenStreetMap data extensively into their mobile maps. And this is a good thing.”

No, this would not be a good thing. The OSM was never made with the intention to form a data source, that non-open services can use to improve their walled-garden-systems. If someone wants to use free data to create something, he can at least be bothered with keeping the derived data free. A problem, for which I can not see an answer is, that the OSM uses sources, that require SA. This applies for many Open Government Data, that have improved the content significantly. Abandoning SA would not only work against the idea of open data, it would also damage the map.

Comment from Hawkeye on 16 March 2014 at 01:04

What’s the hurry? In 70 years or so it will all be public domain anyway (or at least the snapshot from this year will be).

Comment from lxbarth on 17 March 2014 at 18:36

As has been pointed out at least by Frederik and Tim, I am stoking a conversation we have had before. So what has changed that should make it worthwhile to rehash arguments that seem we’ve already had? After all this conversation isn’t always fun ;-)

Here’s why I see dropping share-alike becoming more and more important for OpenStreetMap:

  1. There is more open data coming online by the day and we are not compatible. Especially when it comes to the type of data OpenStreetMap captures. The proliferation of non-share alike open data sources makes OpenStreetMap the open data oddball that isn’t compatible. We’re the selfish player importing from all kinds of open data sources while we’re limited in giving back, creating zero incentives for open data set holders to engage with OpenStreetMap (the NYC gov example).
  2. The world is doing more stuff with raw data. There is a growing data economy of businesses, non profits and governments exchanging data in raw formats - for money or other benefits (the Wheelmap example and the Wikipedia example)

These are trends that have been gaining momentum in the past five years and I expect them to expand. OpenStreetMap’s share alike license limits our participation here. We’re a silo.

This conversation is also not a rehash of the GPL versus BSD argument of the software world. OpenStreetMap’s problem is that share-alike’s diminishing effect on utility is more severe for data than for software. Data isn’t code. In many ways, data is the application. Data in its raw form has utility in and itself. This is very different from software. It is impossible to use an emacs editor in ways that extend its GPL license to the work I create with it. Yet with OpenStreetMap data the equivalent is possible. While as Simon said, the ODbL’s share alike stipulations are limited to modifications, they do very clearly exclude important use cases and they come at the price of huge complexity.

Let me restate my examples from above clearer of what specifically is not possible or unclear under the current OpenStreetMap license:

  • If the NYC government wanted to copy buildings that have changed from OpenStreetMap to the NYC building dataset they couldn’t as their data needs to remain in the public domain.
  • If Wheelmap wanted to offer wheelchair accessibility attributes it collects in OpenStreetMap to commercial data providers this a) severely questions on whether this would lead to existing POIs infected by share-alike (Simon’s narrow interpretation of the ODbL might offer a solution here, but is by no means clear from the license text itself) and b) while the commercial data provider could create maps from the composite dataset, it would be impossible to relicense this data to others.
  • Similar limitations exist for Wikipedia using OpenStreetMap data. As it stands, Wikipedia can only copy OpenStreetMap data where it is able to guarantee to make it available under the ODbL, cleanly separated from all other content available under different licenses (o the irony that OpenStreetMap gets to use simple facts off of Wikipedia as CC-BY-SA 3.0 is not effective on data).

In the light of a growing raw data space I am seeing these examples not as fringe cases but as a vanguard of future use cases that we should support as OpenStreetMap in a straightforward and unambiguous way. We’ll want to support these use cases just like we want to allow everyone to create their own tiles from OpenStreetMap data without worrying about the license. I just don’t see how we’ll do this with the ODbL.

I am clear that while dropping share-alike would be a huge leap in the right direction, it might not be possible to solve all compatibility problems with a single license. What matters is taking steps forward. In this context, I do like the idea that SK53 brought up of special data sharing agreements with particular partners. What if the OSMF could grant the NYC government permission to extract any building and address data at no licensing restriction, essentially compatible with New York City’s Local Law 11 of 2012?

OpenStreetMap’s license is a strategic decision taken by the community, and we shouldn’t take it lightly. More than anything, with this blog post I want to send a signal to anyone trying to do something today with OpenStreetMap that is not possible under the current license, to bring it up and explain their situation. I want to encourage everyone to not think about the OpenStreetMap license as something’s that is set in stone. There is a mechanism to change the license and there are also good reasons why we should be open to do so. Participate in OpenStreetMap and say what you need it to be. OpenStreetMap’s license does matter, even if our graphs look good. While they point to the top and to the right like Steve said they are not exponential with the exception of user registrations and shutting out applications of OpenStreetMap data does mean shutting out incentives to contribute.

Now to the flip side of the coin: the supposed protective function of share-alike. As opponents and proponents of share-alike have stated, the actual power of OpenStreetMap is its community. Today’s data isn’t worth a thing, the real power of OpenStreetMap comes in being able to create the map of tomorrow. If you’re taking OpenStreetMap’s data, close it and have your own paid army of surveyors, street view cars and digitizers maintain it, you’ve not hurt the project but made an incredibly dumb business decision: You couldn’t do this without cutting the dataset off its stream of updates and thus the most valuable part of OpenStreetMap - the community.

Similarly, OpenStreetMap doesn’t have to fear a thing from better contribution tools that somehow would entice a significant part of the OpenStreetMap community to defect to a closed source “enemy”. In the end only an open data project with direct access to raw data can provide the basis on which a communal effort like OpenStreetMap can flourish.

What’s more, in contrast to even large scale software projects, OpenStreetMap’s community has a particularly strong position as mapping the world is a task of huge inertia and growing a community around this is an organic, slow process.

Let me also talk about my motivation for starting this conversation as some have questioned the integrity of my argument. I work at Mapbox where one of our key products, Mapbox Streets is based on the awesome OpenStreetMap. As company and individuals we’ve been involved in OpenStreetMap as mappers, designers and developers for years contributing or improving key projects like Mapnik, Carto CSS, the iD editor, most recently Leaflet.js and more. None of which based on the need to comply with a license, but because of individuals’ passions and an understanding that in an open source project like OpenStreetMap, contributing yields huge positive externalities that help us as a business. We have a deep open source culture at Mapbox and that’s not just because we may or may not be nice people, it’s because it makes business sense.

Merely looking at our products, Mapbox is just fine with OpenStreetMap’s license as-is, also in our days now as a venture backed company since October last year. We can cover the applications we’re offering or planning to build out all under the ODbL. We’re fine precisely because we’re not competing on data, we’re competing on the services on top of it, the legos we build for others to create location based applications. There is zero gain for us in owning data, it’s a commodity and it is most efficiently managed in true open source commons like OpenStreetMap. Just look at how “well” some of the commercial data providers are doing.

Now would a better OpenStreetMap with more possible applications and thus better incentives to contribute and grow community and data benefit Mapbox? Of course it would. But wouldn’t this also benefit everyone else involved, isn’t this exactly what we have in common? The interest for OpenStreetMap to grow, to be successful and to matter?

It seems that this has been the understanding in the OpenStreetMap community all along. The past license change is a case in point. I am not proposing a change of course, I am pointing out that share alike is becoming an impediment to the project while it affords no particular benefit.

Comment from JBacc1 on 17 March 2014 at 20:41

Well written, much referenced, long response.

Rubbing everybody the right way. Turning low-valued arguments. Minimizing the impact of the counter-arguments. Leaving out others. Giving other global affirmations with little justification.

But nevertheless, I disagree. English not being my mother tongue, I would be unable to argument so beautifully. But still, I disagree on both the initial proposal and the way of sweet-turning us into it.

For more argumented answers, they have already began, for example there

Comment from pnorman on 17 March 2014 at 22:50

  • If the NYC government wanted to copy buildings that have changed from OpenStreetMap to the NYC building dataset they couldn’t as their data needs to remain in the public domain.

Are you proposing that OSM change to a public domain like license like CC0 or PDDL?

Comment from throwawayfakeyesyes on 17 March 2014 at 23:34

I agree with pnorman’s concerns, particular with respect to MapBox’s advocacy here. Coming from other sources this would be more credible. Here’s a comment I posted elsewhere about this suggestion:

It’s no surprise this is coming from an employee of MapBox. Despite their incredible support of the OSM community through technical improvements, they are now a venture-backed company and are clearly looking for a massive exit of some sort. The author mentions Google, but it’s actually MapBox that is best-positioned to basically co-opt OSM and create the dominant interface by which all users interact with OSM. Without ShareAlike, they are likely to begin walling off their data, or (just as well) making the underlying OSM infrastructure pointless in a variety of ways. Imagine if nobody visited or used Wikipedia directly because some other organization basically robbed of it relevancy. At first, it could be fine (Yay! Everything is better!), but in time it could be used to control the data, limit its access, and make the underlying project pointless. This is a possibility if OSM wasn’t SA.

MapBox wasn’t in quite such a strategic position when the ODbL debate was going on, but they were in the community so they could have spoken up then, but I have no idea if they did.

If you don’t believe me, look at the licensing for their formerly-public-domain satellite imagery:… “The ‘Satellite’ layer may be used to produce derivative data for the OpenStreetMap project. All other use for derivative data is prohibited.”

Comment from Pieren on 18 March 2014 at 11:53

If the NYC government wanted to copy buildings that have changed from OpenStreetMap to the NYC building dataset they couldn’t as their data needs to remain in the public domain.

In the other way, if OSM license becomes PD, it will not be be possible to import data sources others than PD themselves. And many public data in Europe still gets some licenses which are ODbL or compatible but not PD.

Comment from JRA on 19 March 2014 at 14:06

In my opinion it is not realistic to think that OSM would change its license to attribution-only or PD. What is realistic it that there can be other projects in the future with attribution-only or PD license and they all can live peacefully together with OSM. GeoNames which is CC-BY is a good example. OSM has no trouble in showing results from GeoNames and Nominatim together On the other hand, it looks like GeoNames has no trouble with collecting data into Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License on top of Google Maps.

OSM can not import GeoNames data because they are under CC-BY and OSM does not give attribution. GeoNames can’t use OSM tiles as background because that would make GeoNames ODbL. However, both parties can accept this and for the end users the situation is better than with either OSM or GeoNames alone.

Comment from HannesHH on 19 March 2014 at 16:22

I don’t see how dropping share-alike would allow NYC to take OSM data and publish it as PD. The attribution clause would still be required.

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