Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The great OpenStreetMap license debate

If you are involved with OpenStreetMap, you may or may not be aware that a lot of work has been been going on to develop a new license. If you are signed up for any of the OpenStreetMap mailing lists, then you certainly know that this work has been going on, as there has been a torrent of emails containing very heated debate on the topic over the past week or so (although work in this area has been going on for a couple of years).

From the long and passionate emails of a small number of people, you might get the impression that the new license is some sort of subversive scheme to somehow take over or undermine OpenStreetMap.

Duty Calls

Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, but a few key points I would make are as follows:
  • I support the license change and encourage you to do so too.
  • A lot of very bright people who know way more about data licensing than I do have spent a huge amount of time working on the new license and I respect their knowledge and opinions very highly.
  • The License Working Group followed a very open and consultative process that allowed for lots of input from the community (you can see the minutes of over 50 meetings they have held this year alone).
  • The current license from Creative Commons has some significant shortcomings for databases - it is intended to apply to "creative works" and even Creative Commons says that it should not be used for databases.
  • The new license embodies very much the same spirit as the old license, but is much more enforceable, and better protects both the data and users of the data. So anyone who was comfortable contributing data to OpenStreetMap under the old license should be comfortable with the principles of the new license.
  • Switching from a "ShareAlike" license (which basically is more aggressive about ensuring that OpenStreetMap data remains open) to a "Public Domain" license (which has no restrictions), which is something that has been discussed, but would be a much bigger change than what is being proposed. This is worthy of further debate in the future but even if you support the Public Domain approach (which I lean towards but am undecided), I believe that the right short term approach is to get the project on a more solid legal footing than it is on currently (but without a major change to the original license philosophy).
  • There have been concerns expressed about the possibility of losing some data if existing contributors refuse to make their data available under the new license terms. There is a little risk here but I think it is overstated. The two licenses are so similar in their philosophy that it is hard for me to see a sensible reason why someone who was happy to contribute data under the old one would not do so under the new one. With data imports from larger organizations it may take a little time to work through some bureaucracy but I really think that should be doable, and various members of the community have volunteered to help out with this as needed.
This "human readable summary" does a good job of simply conveying the key principles of the new license.

If you would like to hear a longer discussion on these topics, you can listen to this 45 minute podcast which is a discussion on this topic including myself and various other more knowledgeable people, including several members of the License Working Group.

As I said in an email to one of the OpenStreetMap mailing lists, I think that the License Working Group has put in a huge amount of work on this effort, and I would like to sincerely thank them for that. As I said above, I think that this proposal would move OpenStreetMap onto a much stronger legal footing.

Finally, as I said at the end of the podcast and in an email to one of the lists, while the license is important, it is not the main aim of OpenStreetMap - that is to produce a great free and open map of the world. A lot of work has gone into the new license and big improvements have been made, but now is the time to vote and move on, and to let the community focus more of its energy on more important items like getting more people mapping, further improving the quality of the map data, and so on.