Leaked news – big OSMF deal!


OSMF’s best deal ever? | © Photo: CC0 Public Domain

London, 01/04/2017


A member of the OSMF board leaked the following information to weeklyOSM which we feel compelled to share with our audience.

The OSMF board is currently in the stage of finalizing a large deal with another player in the field of GIS databases. The members of the OSM Foundation have yet to be informed about this “exciting news” [to quote our anonymous source] as every aspect of the deal is not yet finalized. Anyway, our source claimed that we can expect a vast influx of cash into the OSMF’s pockets and a “huge quality improvement to our database”.

But first things first. What has happened so far? What is this deal all about?

The Deal

Google, a provider of worldwide map data of great quality, are always looking for new ways to enhance and improve their data and have been following the OpenStreetMap project for quite some time. According to our anonymous source, the Google representatives expect a large improvement for their map data if they could make use of OSM data. However, the OdbL, the database license the OSM project uses, is holding Google back as they want to merge their existing data with OSM data, not replace it entirely.

The “exciting news” is that Google and the OSMF Licening Working Group have been working hard to find a way to circumvent these legal roadblocks and have finally succeeded. However, Google must compensate OSMF for that. This would enable Google to merge OSM data into their products and finally make use of the superior volunteered geographic information we offer. But it also enables the OSMF to gain funds to keep the project going. We don’t know the details yet, but our source told us that the OSMF negotiated to get a huge injection of cash (millions of pounds when converted from US Dollars) from Google. This would cover our current expenses for several years.

The Law

But I hear you asking, “Wait, how is that possible?” We were curious, too, and asked a member of the Legal Working Group (LWG) for clarification. The person does not want to be named publicly but explained that the solution is two-fold:

The ODbL (version 1.0) is quite complex and sometimes internally inconsistent, or at least not as clear as it could be. That’s why the LWG continues to work on so-called “community guidelines” to define how the ODbL should be interpreted. This leads to documents outlining concepts such as “Produced Work”, “Regional Cuts”, “Horizontal Layers” and so on. However, the current guidelines still won’t allow Google (or any other company for that matter) to incorporate our data into their own database. As our LWG contact explains, though, things get murky when you add the Contributor Terms and the ODbL into the mix. The Contributor Terms allow a clear way forward to change the license, if at least a two thirds majority vote of active contributors approve this step. “Active contributor” is also defined within the Contributor Terms (Section 3) as a natural person that has to be active within the Project for some time.

The crucial part is that the term “Project” is *not* defined legally and subject to a new community guideline which essentially stipulates that any copy (or a ‘fork’) of the main database that is controlled and operated by the OSMF is a Project in its own right, and subsequently subject to that definition within the Contributor Terms! And from there on the way forward is easy: The OWG makes a copy of the main database, published on another domain with only board members being part of that Project. This means that they can change the license to whatever they like, as long as it fullfils the requirements of the Contributor terms. Our source couldn’t tell us the name of that new license, but we were assured that the LWG and and the Google legal team worked hard to find something that was mutually satisfactory to both parties.

The consequences

After all this, we will continue to have our OpenStreetMap project as is, and with an ODbL as is. But the OSMF will make a copy that gets relicensed from time to time to be able to sell the data to other parties under a more liberal license than the ODbL. And it means the OSMF will get as mentioned before funds to keep the OpenStreetMap project running. This model is known as “dual-licensing” and has been used by successful open source projects such as Qt, MySQL and Asterisk.

According to our source, the OSMF board is on the lookout for other companies interested in our dataset. But they want to finish the Google deal first and wait for the reactions from the yet to be informed Foundation membership. The source also hinted that the board already has made some great plans to spend the increased funding available. Without giving concrete details, our source named two projects that funds will be used for:

First of, as we all know, there is a huge amount of data out there, licensed under a proprietary or non-free license unsuitable for OpenStreetMap. That’s why about one third of the funds will be spent to liberate such data. The OSMF will buy new datasets that may then be legally imported into our database.

Second, it’s a challenge to find new members for our project, and with the increasing amount of data it is becoming even harder to motivate new mappers to help. In non-western countries in particular, we’re lacking volunteer contributors, which makes it hard for the foundation to reach their diversity goals. For these reasons, the OSMF plans to give stipends to new mappers in selected areas of need that can help us grow our dataset. The details have yet to be published, but we have been told that there will be some performance metrics defined by a well known OSM company to determine how much each mapper gets paid for their work.

We’re curious when this news will be officially released to the OSMF membership and the wider OSM community, and what the reactions will be like. Before we comment on this news, we want to know what you think. Please leave a comment and let us know.