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The Longest Now

A Brace of Copyright Dilemmas
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 12:14 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,chain-gang

Here are two copyright dilemmas that have come up over the past weeks.  I welcome comments and related stories from those of you with experience in these areas.

Streetmap of Cambridge, England

Map of Cambridge, England from OpenStreetMap

1. Can the locations of important places visible from a map, and paths traceable on a map, be extracted from a map to which one does not have copyright?  If so, what are the risks? Many different perspectives tangle with one another. One comprehensive blog posts posits that it may be alright under copyright, but not socially acceptable in open mapping circles (such as OpenStreetMap), nor a protection against being sued by mapping orgs with deep pockets, nor useful if you wish to convince map-data reusers that it is safe to build any sort of application on top of the resulting data without fear of hassle down the line.

Editors of Wikipedia and of OpenStreetMap don’t agree on how important these topics are, so Wikipedians regularly identify geoinformation from uncited map sources that OSM editors by default decide they cannot use.  If the two communities understood one another’s positions and agreed to take different stances, that would be interesting — but at present there are two separate conversations that aren’t considering the same criteria or audiences.

Coca Cola logo

Coca Cola logo, in the public domain

2. Is it risky for an organization that wishes to protect its trademarks (from confusing misuse and dilution) to license those marks under a free copyright license?  If so, what are the risks?  This is a topic that comes up every year or so for Wikimedia, and is recently a hot one, as many Wikimedia projects today refuse to host any images that are not available under a free license, to simplify bulk reuse of dumps.  The Swedish Wikipedians recently removed all instances of the Wikimedia logos from their project, since those logos are not freely licensed.  No clear answers have emerged about what the risks are; the only definitive statement we have worked out is that ”it does not improve one’s trademark protection to release marks under a free license”.  On the other hand, that could be said of most usability improvements we make to the projects, and it would improve overall distributability and reuse of page and media dumps & help avoid these tense annual debates.

For comparison:

  • Mozilla licenses its logos under the MPL and the GPL.  They don’t beat you over the head with that information, and make it abundandtly clear wherever the logos appear that they are protected by trademark; but they freely license them.
  • Debian licenses its logo under the GPL.  (Its community logo, which was designed as something free for the community to use, quickly became its central trademark.)
  • Coca-Cola and other older organizations have logos whose copyright has passed into the public domain.  They seem to remain protected by trademark.
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