Thursday, February 12, 2009

Self Interest or Public Interest? - Google Maps Versus Crown Copyright

The story goes like this: seeing that the Country Fire Authority Website was struggling (as, for that matter, was the Geosciences Australia Sentinel site), Google decided to run a mash-up on Google Maps to display fire locations and help people get the information they needed.

It was able to secure information very quickly from the CFA, which provides a feed of fire information covering private land, but fires on public land are tracked not by the CFA but by Victoria's Department of Sustainability – which didn't give the okay for use of its copyright.

In this ZDnet story, Google's Alan Noble complains that the refusal to provide information has its roots in Crown Copyright, which stands in the way of expanding the geospatial information available to the public.

It's all pretty cut-and-dried, isn't it? On one side, we have a go-getting company devoting resources to a public service, only to be baulked by a hidebound bureaucracy.

But that's not all there is to things.

The first is that Google is well aware how mapping copyrights are handled in Australia. The general reader, I guess, doesn't need the entire end-to-end detail, but the short version is that most of the data used in detailed maps (street directories, for example, or the property boundaries known as cadastral maps) is managed by PSMA – the Public Service Mapping Agency, whose copyright appears on Google Maps Australia's home page next to MapData Sciences Pty Ltd.

Roughly, the PSMA acts as the copyright clearing house for map data at detail finer than that offered for free by Geosciences Australia. In general, this means maps of finer scale than 1:100,000 (this is the potted version, a full description of Australian geodata would need a book).

States own the copyright in their mapping information, and sell it for fairly decent slices of lettuce.

So the first issue in asking for any give-away of state mapping data is simply that there are probably several approvals to go through to get the sign-off; and anyhow, I would guess that a public servant that okayed the free use of data that other users have to pay for would be on a tight spot at some point in the future.

But that doesn't fully satisfy me.

For the last three years or so, in my capacity as an analyst, I have become intimate with geospatial tools and various spatial data sources.

One thing I can tell you is this: while a particular map, or a database of locations, is subject to copyright, there's nothing to stop a person discovering the latitude and longitude of a particular place for themselves, and using that latitude and longitude in a publication. They may well reproduce the co-ordinates held in someone else's database, but the existence of the co-ordinates isn't copyright.

So there's something other than a simple issue of Crown Copyright at stake: Google wanted a particular dataset, to enable a particular programming approach, and it is this that was denied.

There's another remark made by Noble that's worthy of remark:

"It's ironic that I can download detailed NASA satellite imagery [of Australia] more readily than I can get satellite imagery from the Australian government,” he is reported to have said.

That's not surprising: most of the world's satellite imagery comes from NASA, and the Australian government doesn't own the copyright. I can (and do) download NASA images directly to Grass-GIS, the open source geographic application. If you want to get copyright information, go to the copyright owner.

As for its call for mapping data to exist in the public domain, it's worth remembering that PSMA copyright notice at the bottom of Google Maps Australia. There is a clear self-interest here, because Google has to pay a license fee for the PSMA maps – and these don't come for free.

In other words, Google's stance could safely be dismissed, except for one thing.

I happen to agree.

The prices charged for government geospatial data are outrageously high. We paid for the mapping in the first place, via various state lands departments and so on; to buy the maps, we have to pay again – and to buy (say) detailed national street maps runs well into the tens of thousands.

Greater availability won't just support Google: it would open the gate to lots of innovation and, heaven help us, lots of competition, because most of the value-add over the top of geo data is not intrinsic to the data itself.