Licensing impasse holds up virtual London

I’m back in Cambridge for the weekend, getting out the door. In the meantime, here’s some commentary on my airport reading:

Andrew Hudson-Smith points to an article/op-ed piece in the Guardian (where he is quoted) that laments the copyright squabbles that are keeping a 3D building layer of London out of Google Earth:

Google was equally enthusiastic and approached the university about incorporating Virtual London into its city maps.

At the moment, London boroughs can use Virtual London under licences they have with Ordnance Survey [OS] and Infoterra, which supplied the Lidar data. What nobody can do is put the model on the web for all to see. Google’s approach “led to some discussion between OS and Google”.

However, these discussions appear to have reached an impasse. The sticking point is understood to be Google’s attempt to negotiate a fixed fee for the data, rather than accepting Ordnance Survey’s practice of charging by the number of transactions. Ordnance Survey would not comment on the specific case, but said that a fixed fee would “wreck the level playing field for other partners” – and it should be noted that it is obliged to treat all customers (including itself) on the same terms. OS said it is happy for its data to be used in a “Google-type” environment. “Sites such as Multimap and Streetmap use our data and their services are freely available to the public over the web.”

[...]The impasse illustrates the difficulty faced by Ordnance Survey in adapting its licensing policies for the new age.

When GIS was a specialized field, pay per use wouldn’t bankrupt anyone, nor make anyone rich. But when the number of potential users for this data reaches the hundreds of millions, then it really is time to come up with another model for rewarding innovation, especially when the cost of duplicating content asymptotically approaches zero. In other words, OS’s other partners are also being overcharged, now that the data in question is ready for mainstream consumption.

Interestingly, (I know, I’m using that word too much of late) the article is part of a wider campaign by the Guardian to make tax-payer funded data free to all. But Google wasn’t even asking for free data — it just wanted a licensing model that can scale with the rising popularity of geobrowsers.

Contrast all this with a recent more successful model for collaboration: NASA giving its raw data away in return for help from Google in processing it and serving it. Perhaps the Ordinance Survey and Google could try out something more creative along those lines — could OS use some time or room on Google’s server farms for some projects, perhaps? Surely some Google technology would be of use to OS in some kind of barter deal?

(Malicious afterthought: There must be a fixed cost to getting this data for oneself, without OS’s help. Perhaps Google could collaborate with open-source initiatives like OpenStreetMap to obtain a duplicate set, and then there would be no need to for anyone to license this data from OS anymore. This prospect in turn might drive OS to make a fixed-cost deal.)

2 thoughts on “Licensing impasse holds up virtual London”

  1. “But Google wasn’t even asking for free data — it just wanted a licensing model that can scale with the rising popularity of geobrowsers.”

    Funny, my potential business users are asking for the same thing of Google and its licensing of GE Pro–a model that will scale based on usage….


  2. Thanks for noticing the campaign. This is only one of dozens of examples we’ve written about in the past nine months or so, also including the fact that you can buy the same data (tide heights) from one part of government (UK Hydrographic Office) that you can get for free from another (a lab whose name I forget – the power of branding, eh).

    What it really comes down to is the absurdity of the British system where the “crown” owns everything, in theory. Being feudal is wrecking our economy.

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