I have been in Hobart , Tasmania this week at the Spatial Sciences Institute Biennial International Conference. This is the second time I have been to a SSI conference and I have found these events to be very worthwhile. This year has been exceptional and I want to tell you about an absolutely fascinating Workshop that I attended Monday.
Open Content Licensing of Government Information - Creating a Spatial Information Creative Commons (A legal platform to support inter-jurisdictional sharing of data)
The title represents an accurate precis of what the workshop covered. It was presented by Tim Barker and Neale Hooper, of the Queensland Treasury, which is part of the government of the State of Queensland. Neale is a crown lawyer with private experience and who has specialized in intellectual property (IP) rights and Tim is a statistician. They have been assisted by Dr Anne Fitzgerald, who is also a lawyer.
Their objective has been to develop a standard set of licenses for the Government of Queensland to be used for digital spatial data including in an online environment. The widely quoted statistic is that 80% of government information has a geospatial dimension, so this will have major impact on the availability and dissemination of government information. Their primary audience is government and focusses on intragovernment sharing of spatial data. By standardizing a legal framework for sharing information, they hope to help manage govt IP, standardize information licensing, improve access to information, and reduce risk. Standard licensing will be comprised of standard set of terms, be both effective and legal, fit into the national and international recognized environments, and provide an attractive environment for private sector investment. The effort is part of the Queensland Spatial Information Council's Smart geospatial solutions for Queensland that involves local government, the federal government, the education sector, and the private sector. They touched on pricing policy but that is not what this workshop was about.
What motivated this initiative was a Queensland Government review that found that most government agencies don't use licenses. and among those that do, use different licenses, so licensing is non standard, there are inter-jurisdictional problems, and in many cases it is easier to get what they need from the private sector than from another government agency. The agencies themselves apparently want a standard licensing scheme to open up access to data held by other agencies. The current situation means that there are major problems in particular for online portals and for interjurisdictional projects, which represent serious impediments to innovation
Intellectual Property (IP) Rights in Australia
Copyright in Australia is different from copyright in the US. An interesting example is that in the US telephone book White Pages are not copyrightable, while in Australia they are. Copyright is automatic in Australia and in Australia there is the concept of Crown copyright, which means that material originating from a government employee in the normal course of his or her duties, is automatically copyrighted by the government. This includes spatial data. A really intriguing thing is that apparently this is not the case under US copyright law, so that, for example, the US Census' TIGER data, which is freely down loadable, is not copyrighted.
The problem in Queensland, and I gather in the rest of Australia, is that there are no standard licenses, so that government agencies are not aware of what their legal rights are when they want to reuse another agency's data. For example, it is uncertain if they can create a derivative work incorporating another agency's data or whether their data can be used for commercial purposes.
Creative Commons Licensing
What is being recommended in Queensland is that all government spatial data would be available under Creative Commons (CC) licenses. CC represents a set of six licenses that protect the IP rights of data creators while encouraging sharing and re-use.
Licenses are interoperable, minimize administration and can be applied to any media. It should also be borne in mind, that just as with open source software, there is always an opportunity for dual licensing. The intention is that all Queensland Government data will be released with at least an attribution license, so that all spatial data files will contain a a copyright statement. This is possible in Australia because copyright is automatic and because government data is covered by Crown copyright. In the US, in contrast, data emanating from the Federal Government apparently does not have copyright, which creates a problem.
Creative Commons licenses are widely used, and both Google and Yahoo support searches for CC licensed material. Interestingly apparently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation requires Creative Commons licenses in the context of the AIDS research that the Foundation supports.
Neale and Tim reported that their recommendation is getting a lot of support within the Queensland government as well as by the private sector. I would think that their ground-breaking research and recommendations will get a lot of attention nationally in Australia and even more attention worldwide. I find it intriguing that the issue of copyrighting government data hasn't received a lot more attention than it has. I think that this issue has much wider implications than many people imagine.