To License or Not to License Geospatial Data: Still a Challenge for Government Agencies

Tim de Troye from the State of South Carolina offered a presentation that is an ongoing issue among states and local governments about how they distribute geospatial data collected with taxpayer money. He recognized that some organizations copyright their data and that data in South Carolina, for example, is available but through different agreements depending on whether it is spatial or not.

The big question in licensing geospatial data is to license or not to license!
De Troye said that many choose an Open Use or General Use License; others opt for something more restrictive. But whichever option is chosen, state GIS coordinators should look upon this  as an opportunity to focus on the benefits of licensing so that users know how data can or should be handled. Some of the options to consider about geospatial data are as follows:
  • Can or should it be copied, reproduced or distributed
  • Can or should it be incorporated with other data
  • Is the data offered for a one time use?
  • Will or should its use "time out?"
  • Should it copy certain attribution thereby giving credit where credit is due?
  • Can or should data usage be tracked to show demand and thus justify its value?
  • Entities may consider limiting liability to avoid confusion and to specifically articulate what the data can be used for.
  • Set up a partnership relationship: receive data improvements, comments and corrections and receive new data products in return
Issues with licensing have two primary considerations:
  • Legal: restrictive vs. open licensing
  • Enforcing restrictive licenses - is it possible?
De Troye offered a synopsis of how South Carolina handles geospatial data licensing. At one point, almost no one was running licenses past its legal department. One reason was that the legal department often does not understand GIS and hence confusion between what is GIS, maps, or software.
In many cases local authorities were using commercial licensing agreements as templates for data licensing. Many counties in South Carolina copyright data to try to protect it. But the problem is whether it is really copyrightable. De Troye said that in order to copyright anything it needs to be original and be some sort of creative work. Are parcels copyrightable ? De Troye said that most digital parcel data is just a representation of data found on paper copies and therefore is not original nor creative, for example. Other 
What's going on now in South Carolina? De Troye offered these observations:
  • Several counties are placing data in the public domain; many others are considering it.
  • Many want to go public domain but there is a lack of distribution resources with minimal return on fees.
  • There are certain barriers to transitioning to the public domain. If the local government is no longer getting fees there may be a perception of reduced value for the data. Therefore more education is required and there needs to be a champion who can better articulate the value of GIS data.
So, the state has developed a series of speaking points and have repeated contact with counties to reinforce the licensing options. They've also established a statewide GIS conference to facilitate the education process and they recommend having a champion in each county.

Published Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Written by Joe Francica

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