Way back in 2007 I presented at the then second O’Reilly Where2.0 conference. The talk focused on open access to government data with specific reference to public transportation data. At this point Google’s Transit initiative had no more than a few systems participating, New York City’s MTA was threatening private parties, trying them to force them into licensing agreements for use of MTA’s trademarks and copyright. Lawsuits and more came later. But why talk about the past? Because it’s still relevant! This April I’m thrilled to be presenting again at the Where2.0 conference, ging an update on “How Open Is Open? Five Years Later.” Watching the original presentation is good for context.
Underlying the “How Open Is Open?” presentation were two points of law–one, that the US federal government is not permitted to hold copyright. The rationale is straight-forward: if paid for by taxpayers, the work should be available to taxpayers. Sometimes this is contested, resulting in FOIA requests, appeals, sometimes lawsuits. The second is that facts, expressed in a database, are not afforded copyright protection. The Supreme Court made this plain in its 1991 Feist decision, stating that a mere collection of facts (in this case, a telephone directory) does not qualify as unique, and therefore not protected under this statute. While the court hasn’t ruled on map data, it’s indisputable that the location of (say) Mt Rushmore is known. This is also a fact. The timetable for a train schedule is similarly grounded in fact. Case closed. Or so we thought.
Claiming something is one thing, enforcing it is another. Since the 2007 talk at the Where2.0 conference, Urban Mapping has been party to litigation against transit agencies and city departments, filed hundreds of public records, made dozens of appeals and generally tried to liberate data from its masters. At the risk of sounding all-knowing, subsequent posts leading up to the 2012 Where Conference will pull together much of the current legal and political issues around open data. Please be sure to read part two and part three of the Geodata Trilogy.