Geospatial Data: A New Old Data Type for DRM?

This past Monday, I spoke at the Open Geospatial Consortium Rights Management Summit, which took place at MIT in Cambridge, MA.  This was a very interesting event.  A good summary was written up in Directions Magazine, a periodical covering geospatial data and location-based computing.

While researching my talk, I noticed that the players in this industry are all over the map (pun intended), from raw data providers to commercial publishers to consumer device makers to researchers to government agencies.  In other words, it’s an entire content ecosystem that seems to exist in a parallel universe to the media industry.  And it’s one that hasn’t really addressed rights management technologies in practice, though the OGC has done some work on standards and modeling.

One of the learnings from this conference was that much of the rights management that already takes place (without technological help) in the geospatial world is of the B-to-B rather than B-to-C variety.  There is a large gulf between what I call rights information management — tracking of information about rights for the purpose of automating B-to-B transactions — and rights enforcement in the sense of “classic” DRM.  There was a general sense that the community would like to solve the former problems before considering whether to move on to the latter.

The other salient issue is that much of the raw data in the geospatial realm is issued by government entities and thus is not subject to copyright (though certain types of aggregations of the data might be, depending on how they are aggregated).   This means that any technologies used to enforce rights are really enforcing contract terms, not rights assigned to content under statutory law.   This will make for “cleaner” implementations of DRM (e.g, no fair use concerns), if the geospatial community intends to go down that route.  The data is fine-grained and complex, so the practicality of applying DRM technology to it is something to consider.

I remarked that whereas the original DRM innovators of the mid-late 1990s did not really differentiate among market segments, DRM solutions for corporate, government, and consumer content have gone down quite different evolutionary paths over the years.  Geospatial data is unique in that it spans all of these worlds.  It will be an interesting challenge for the geospatial community to try to re-unify DRM to meet their needs.

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