Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Lowering the access barrier to govt info in the UK

Michael Cross, New study casts doubt on Ordnance Survey's copyright control, The Guardian, April 5, 2007.  Excerpt:

...MasterMap is the most valuable asset of Britain's most commercially successful public agency, Ordnance Survey. Its different layers of data, depicting topographic and artificial features, each uniquely identified, underpin all the agency's maps and are widely used by businesses, government bodies and researchers. Ordnance Survey guards its investment jealously - a little too jealously for the Office of Fair Trading, which in December rapped the mapping agency over the knuckles for restricting access to "unrefined" geographical data.

However, Ordnance Survey's ability to control access to MasterMap may not be as absolute as it thinks. According to a new study by government-funded intellectual property lawyers, some users at least have a legal right both to extract items of data and to pass them on to third parties. A study by Charlotte Waelde of the University of Edinburgh's School of Law concludes that a geospatial database does not enjoy copyright protection, as Ordnance Survey claims, but rather is protected by the European Database Directive....

One user who welcomes the finding is Dr Mike Smith, of Kingston University's School of Earth Sciences and Geography. He says the opinion will mean that academics will no longer have to resort to measures such as reproducing maps only in shrunk-down form. "At the moment the largest practical size we can reproduce is A5, which is almost pointless," he says.

Ordnance Survey takes a different view. "We haven't been able to consider the report in detail," said spokesman Scott Sinclair, "but there is absolutely no doubt that intellectual property rights exist in MasterMap...."

Smith agrees that the database directive should not be read as a free-for-all grab, but says that it could have far-reaching consequences for the Free Data movement. It will also be of interest to the Office of Fair Trading, which last year criticised Ordnance Survey for giving "limited access" to the unrefined information in its databases....The government's delayed response to the report is due next month....

Technology Guardian's Free Our Data campaign has a better idea. The best way to realise MasterMap's potential would be to sack the lawyers and make its data free to all. Of course, the taxpayer would have to pick up the costs of keeping this unique national treasure up to date, but we think that's a price worth paying.

Also see Michael Cross' blog post on the subject and the follow-up comments.

Comment.  When a strong principle (facts are uncopyrightable) collides with a well-entrenched government practice (claiming copyright in factual information gathered at public expense, such as the geospatial information underlying Ordnance Survey maps), which will give first?  We'll soon find out for the UK.  Meantime, the question should be put to the test in other countries.  Where there's a database right, as in the EU, governments can fall back on it.  That's far short of OA but still progress, since the database right is weaker than copyright.  Where there's no database right, as in the US, there's no stopping short of the public domain.