Luc Gommans/ blog

Copyright FAQ

Written on 2019-08-01

In the OpenStreetMap Telegram group, the topic of copyright and licenses is frequently discussed. The way that copyright works is not common knowledge. With this FAQ I hope to create a source that people from the OpenStreetMap community can link to for general copyright information with a focus on issues relevant to OpenStreetMap.

Feel free to suggest corrections, additions, or ask questions!

Table of contents

What is copyright?

If you make something, you automatically have copyright over it. The only way to allow others to use something, is to license it. You have to explicitly say "you may use this", otherwise it is copyrighted and others cannot use it.

You cannot copyright facts, so if you write down a fact, you cannot copyright that. If you paint the fact into a picture, for example you write "Restaurant Di Mara is here" onto a picture of Brazil, then that picture is copyrighted, but the information is not, because it is just a fact.

In many countries, you can copyright a collection of facts. That is what OpenStreetMap is: a collection of facts. We license these facts under the Open Database License (ODbL), allowing others to use our map data.

Our map tiles (the pictures you see on have their own license called Creative Commons. It has similar requirements as ODbL (like attribution), but is not the same.

What does ODbL say?

ODbL allows you to do pretty much anything, so long as you give attribution and share any edits under the same terms (share-alike).

Attribution means that you must make it clear, to anyone who sees a substantial amount of OpenStreetMap data, that the source is OpenStreetMap. If you publish a map, you must display "Copyright OpenStreetMap Contributors" or something like that.

Share-alike means that, if you make edits to the map, you must license it under the same terms. You can sell a commercial navigation system with OpenStreetMap data, and you may add your own data to it, but if someone asks you for the map data, you must give it to them, including your edits. This is because the complete 'work' (the map data), including your edits, are considered a 'derived work'.

The first point (attribution) is often contested. Someone may show "© OSM" on the map, even though says you should show "© OpenStreetmap contributors". Is that legal? Maybe. The data is licensed under the license, and the license is ODbL, so whatever ODbL says is what matters. So what does it say? It says that the attribution have to be "reasonably calculated to make any Person that [sees it] aware that Content was obtained from [OpenStreetMap]". Is "© OSM" reasonable on a small screen with little space if it is clickable and directs you to We can argue, but it is for a judge to decide whether that satisfies the contract (the license is basically a contract between the OpenStreetMap contributors and the person or company using the data).

Why do we use ODbL, instead of making it completely open and free?

The goal of OpenStreetMap is providing open map data for everyone. To reach that goal, we need:

To get map data, we need contributors. To get contributors, we need publicity. One way of getting publicity is attribution. As a non-commercial project, there is no marketing team, so word of mouth and attribution are our main ways of allowing people to discover the project. Most of us seem to agree that just word of mouth is not enough, so our license must require attribution in order for the project to continue to work towards its goal.

What data can I use for OpenStreetMap?

See also:

Anything that is compatible with ODbL. This is often tricky, so when you are not sure, don't use it.

A single fact may be fine, but we absolutely must not copy from other collections of facts. You cannot copy facts from another map. There are millions of contributors on OpenStreetMap. If a few of us would copy one fact from another source, we would be copying a collection of facts from that other source. We cannot do this.

But what about copying a single fact from a website, like the opening hours or the phone number of a local store? That is fine, because they do not have copyright over that information. They have copyright over their website: the layout, the text, the logo... but the phone number? That's a fact and not a collection.

Creative Commons-licensed data is an example of data that we cannot use. It requires attribution which we cannot provide. Anyone viewing the map on would not be shown the credits for this data source. (So why can't we make an attribution=X tag and display that on the map? Maybe because every implementation would have to do that, which would be very difficult and it would limit the uses of our data, and therefore we don't want to impose that requirement? I don't know for sure.)

Does that mean that you cannot copy from websites that are licensed under Creative Commons? Once again, if it is a single fact, and if you are sure that nobody else copied anything from that source, then it is fine. How can you be sure with millions of other contributors? The only way to be sure that nobody else copied from that source, is if there is no other information in that source. A website of a local store will list their own phone number, but not anyone else's, so you can copy from that because there is no way that we could collectively be infringing their database copyright (since there is no collection).

When in doubt, don't use it until you are sure, or ask someone who knows for sure!

Another option is to ask the owner (the copyright holder) for permission. Regardless of the license, if they give you permission to use the data in OpenStreetMap, it's fine. Just make sure you got the permission in writing (like an email), so that we won't have trouble proving that we got permission!

Examples for getting permission:

What does it mean for data to be in the "Public Domain"?

This is data to which copyright does not apply.

Publishing something as public domain is not valid in Europe. You always retain some rights, such as moral rights, which you cannot waive. Therefore, you cannot donate your work to the public domain. Licenses which attempt to do this, such as CC0, basically say "I waive my copyright, sans any rights I must retain". Note that CC0 (or similar) is fine for ODbL compatibility. See this section on Wikipedia.

Someone infringes the ODbL, the OSMF should sue them!

Remember, the copyright says "OpenStreetMap contributors". That means you! You are a contributor! You retain copyright over the 'collection of facts' that you contributed (all your edits combined). You could probably sue them yourself.

The OSMF might also be able to, but we should also not discourage people from using OpenStreetMap data. If word gets out that OpenStreetMap is a risk to use, companies would rather pay someone for safe map data instead, and we lose potentially large contributors as well as large sources of publicity (through attribution). Even if their attribution is lacking, it is often better for everyone (including us) to play nice.

GPL is an example of a license that companies often avoid using because people have sued over it. Of course the people were right and the big evil companies wrong, but other big evil companies contribute a lot to GPL-licensed software. We have to find a balance.

I agree with anyone that says "but it's simple to comply with the license, and we are not asking anything unreasonable." Yes, they should just comply and it is not difficult. But the same goes for GPL, which is a similar license: if you use code that you freely obtained under GPL, you have to contribute back in the same way. Fair is fair. And yet, many companies are scared of this and prohibit their employees from using GPL-licensed code. Maybe developers choose something other than GPL because of this. I don't mean that we should never sue, and we should definitely remind them of their obligation under the license, but we should find a balance before calling for a last resort.

Free vs Open Source

A creative work or a collection of facts (such as code or OpenStreetMap data) that is published under a "free license" can be used in a way that most people consider "free" (as in "freedom"). This does not mean gratis (without money), it just means that you can copy it, modify it, show it to others, etc. Conditions, such as attribution, may apply. This is sometimes also called "libre" to avoid confusion, because "free" may refer to the monetary price.

ODbL is a free license.

"Open source" typically means the same. When someone says "open source software", they usually mean software that with a free license. Some people like to split hairs and say: "Well, technically I can see the source of this, so the source is open. I just cannot use it." An example of this is an SVG image. Yes, you can easily view and edit the code behind it because it is a nicely editable format, but the fact that you can do that, does not make it legal. The license still determines what you can do with it.

None of these terms are protected. I can create a license and call it free, regardless of what it says. Like, "you are free to use this software, provided you pay me and also allow me to spy on you and your family" (this example was sponsored by Microsoft Windows). But just because you call that free, does not mean that everyone else agrees. Other people claim that the Open Source Initiative get to define the term, perhaps because they own the domain This is not true either: they can make any definition they want, and many people may agree with it, but that does not make it the law or the commonly understood meaning.