Does the OpenDatabase License need CC style Modules?

OSM_CC_WorldIn the OpenStreetMap community there is a known problem with the applicability of Creative Commons licensing to geographic data. The CC licenses are truly meant for creative works and not for the creation and aggregation of factual data.

To address this, the OpenStreetMap Foundation Board has pursued the development of a more applicable and friendly Open Database License, ODbL. The goal of this license would be to make it clear the legal protection of geographic data gathered and how it can be used with other data or derived from.

It is a sign of maturity that an open-data project like OpenStreetMap is dealing with the legal issues that surround the otherwise grassroots crowd-sourced community. Similar parallels occurred with the development of GPL and BSD with open-source software and the Creative Commons in user-generated media. Open-Data is following in the footsteps of open-source, from grassroots "hackers" to disrupting some industries and redirecting others.

You spilled your legal all over my data

However, one difference that has affected these two examples is a valuable guide with how the ODbL and other similar licenses should progress. Software licenses are currently a myriad of acronyms and terms: BSD, MIT, GPL, Affero, Apache, and more. SourceForge has a deprecated license guide and in fact offers at least 72 license options.

The result is a confusion to both software producers and consumers. What licenses enforce which restrictions and usages? How can I bring together software under different licenses and their miscibility. This is a question that even after a decade of mainstream open-source experts still ask for advice.

A working model

Creative Commons LicensesCreative Commons headed this off through some nice modularization of the most popular options. Through clear naming, definitions, and iconography users can understand the concepts encased in otherwise unapproachable legal contracts such as Non-commercial, Attribution, Share-Alike, and No-Derivatives with straight-forward choosing of which modules any user wants to apply to their work.

This results in easy, lightweight sharing - encouraging people to contribute to public repositories and also make use of these works. By having simple, well understood licenses, one example is Flickr's simple search filter that makes it easy to find Creative Commons only images for use in third party materials and presentations. It's even possible to visualize and determine how you can mix together content released under various modules.

The overall result is that the license has become popular and encourages both sharing and use of shared media - effectively ending the future of traditional stock photography.

Open Data Modules

My point of highlighting Creative Commons is to look at how simple mechanisms can promote effectiveness around licensing of information. The ODbL's primary purpose is making it clear how to produce and use OpenStreetMap data, but in this action it is addressing the growing need to easily define how the true underlying strands of the web will be shared. You can read a draft version of the ODbL.

The opportunity is to lead the charge on clear, understandable data licenses that citizens can take to their governments to demand the data be released under these terms. There would not be the need for click-throughs of unique terms of service or agreements, but easily shareable data that magnifies the power of any available datasources.

One counter-point to the pre-defined modules is that users that want variations can "select, modify, or delete" sections as necessary. This is definitely not an option - as it will create unclear and probably invalid licenses. In addition, these variations and spin-offs will be unvetted and untrusted. By handling the majority of cases under one common umbrella, the validity and attractiveness of a standard license decreases the difficulty of any organization to claim it wouldn't work for them.

I posited this question to the OpenStreetMap Legal mailing list hoping to spark a discussion with the various people currently involved with the license. So far the feedback has surprisingly been negative on the benefits of modular based licenses. OpenStreetMap has a long road ahead even after a new license in drafted in convincing the very large community to switch licenses - an effort I hope does not negatively impact the organization but instead illuminates the need for clear licenses from the start of any open data collection project.

With GeoCommons, we are spending a lot of resources gathering, annotating, and sharing out open data sources. Our metadata catalog is shared under a Creative Commons Attribute, Share-Alike license. And nominally all the data we bring in is somehow open, under different monikers. But right now it is very difficult to easily share out the terms of these licenses - so the onus is upon the user to properly use each dataset. With our goal of making geospatial data easy to use for non-experts, we have a very high interest in making geodata licenses as easy to understand as photographs or articles are under Creative Commons.

An open question to open data licenses

OSMCCThe question here is whether the module concept of Creative Commons is an effective mechanism that should be applied to the Open Data License. The goal is to make it so easy for anyone to share information that it would take more effort not to do so. That this type of easily shared information is highly preferential by consumers that other datasets under various and unclear licenses such that these other sources conform to best practices.

What do you think is the best path?

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.