Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


GreenAmps fights OS and HMSO over use of map data

More from The Guardian: GreenAmps, a renewable energy company, has been taken to court by Ordnance Survey and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office over its use of OS data sourced from an academic licence for making applications to councils.

The core of the argument was that GreenAmps said that using OS data was imperative for making its applications – but that it is a monopoly supplier, and that that couldn’t be right.

[Nick] Brown [chief executive of GreenAmps] says that OS maps are in practice an indispensible component of planning applications for wind turbines. He admits obtaining sets of mapping data “from academic sources” and using them to develop a software tool for streamlining planning applications, initially just for his company’s use. “Early on, though, we decided that this was too important to stay in house.” He says that the government, in the shape of the Department of Trade and Industry, asked him to make the software available to “all and sundry”.

OS and HMSO argued that the data is Crown copyright and so could be sold and priced as they see fit.

In 2006, Brown says, he tried to negotiate a non commercial licence for the data. OS said that, as a commercial firm, Green Amps should pay a commercial licence fee, of £16,000. Last year, OS and HMSO, the formal holder of copyright, took action in the High Court.

Brown says the court action was out of proportion to the size of loss faced by OS; for its part, OS says it has a duty to safeguard the public purse.

OS said that it went to

“a great deal of effort to offer [Brown] a licensing situation that would work for him,” including its developer programme for start-ups. “He simply refused all suggestions.”

But as the article points out, while we can’t condone the theft of (intellectual) property, the case shows an interesting policy issue:

This is the question of whether the practice of managing government information through trading funds like Ordnance Survey is compatible with European regulations requiring essential public information to be made freely available.

Brown says he will base his appeal on the claim that maps are an essential component of planning applications, a quasi judicial process. Last month, he published a survey of planning officers concluding that, while in theory maps could come from anywhere, in practice local authorities look askance at applications not supported with OS data. “It appears that no viable alternative to OS exists on the market.”

On that basis, he says, charges for the use of such essential data are a breach of human rights, as well as against the spirit of the EU Inspire directive, passed last year to enable the free exchange of data for the purposes of environmental protection. We await the appeal with interest.

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