Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The impact of Bilski on the Spatial Community

The Supreme Court recently issued its decision on the Bilski v. Kappos patent case. The decision has been widely discussed in the legal community for both what it says and what it did not say. The Court did reject the "machine-or-transformation test" as the sole test for analyzing the patentability of a process. I would be very interested in your thoughts on what impact this might have on spatial technology patents.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Google Street View: Are We Looking At It The Right Way?

Google Street View has received a great deal of attention since it was introduced in May 2007. Much of this attention has been negative, as citizens, government officials, the media, politicians and now even lawyers have raised concerns about what is being collected, how it is being used, how long it is being kept, and what are Google's ultimate intentions in assembling such a huge database of information and imagery. Some of this criticism appears to be justified, given Google's recent admission it was accidently collecting certain information, including snippets of emails, passwords and browsing history.

However, shouldn't we also be blaming government officials, policymakers, lawyers, etc. for not developing a consistent legal and policy framework with respect to spatial data upon which a company like Google can develop its business strategy? (I use Google here because it is the company that you most frequently hear about, but other companies are collecting similar types of spatial data.)

We are currently seeing an explosion in applications using spatial data. However, location information and data is not new. There has been plenty of time for the legal and policy communities to catch up or at least prepare for mapping in the digital era. Mapquest sent the first map over a very young Internet in 1996. High-resolution commercial satellite imagery has been available since early 2000 and medium-resolution satellite imagery has been available since the mid-1980's. President Clinton did away with GPS Selective Availability, enabling the public to get access to better location information from the network of GPS satellites, in 2000. Even Google Earth has been with us since 2005.

All of these milestones, and many others contributed to where we are today. However, governments have been unable or unwilling to develop and implement new laws and policies that reflect the current technological environment. For example, government and businesses continue to launch remote-sensing satellites, but most countries do not have a transparent and consistent policy with respect to remote sensing or the data that is collected. Similarly, government officials regularly express concerns about location privacy, but there has been very little done to change privacy regimes to the new reality. Instead, governments try to figure out how to apply existing - and outdated - laws and policies. (The courts make an impact but it’s piecemeal and on a case by case basis.) Countries spend millions in U.S. dollars on technology to share spatial data between government agencies at the local, national and international level, but give almost no thought to the legal issues that complicate data sharing from a practical standpoint.

It should not be surprising therefore, that in this legal and policy vacuum, companies such as Google and others bump up to - and sometimes cross - the line of what is considered acceptable, and in some cases legal. They do not have the luxury, nor the mentality, of the status quo. (And our world would be worse if they did.) In many instances they need to push forward, for both competitive and technological reasons and in doing so, frequently test the legal limits. So, as government officials, policymakers and lawyers world-wide research what Google did or didn't do with respect to Street View, perhaps they can also examine what steps they could be taking to make their laws and policies more aligned with current realities and more in tune with today's spatial environment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Directions Media Spatial Law and Policy Webinar

On June 29, Directions Media is hosting a webinar on Spatial Law and Policy. The three main topics to be addressed will be privacy, data quality/liability issues and licensing, however I expect other issues will arise as well. Pete Schreiber from ESRI and Kara John from DMTI Spatial will be speaking (as will I). If you have not heard them speak before I highly recommend it. Both have excellent presentations and valuable insight and experience on these issues. The format is interactive, so there will be plenty of time for questions. Feel free to contact Directions Media if you have any questions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spatial Data Infrastructures - More Than A Directive

Recently, I have been doing some work on the legal and policy framework necessary to develop a spatial data infrastructure (SDI). These are the laws, policies, regulations, etc. that go beyond a directive to share data between government agencies. Instead they focus on the practical realities that agencies, and their legal counsel, must address when licensing (or sharing) spatial data. Depending upon the country or region for which the SDI is being developed these issues might include a government agency's rights to protect intellectual property, issues of sovereign immunity, contract enforceability and dispute resolution.

I thought that this piece (Part 1 and Part 2) is an excellent discussion on the intersection of data quality, stewardship and potential liability. It is an issue that I believe will become of increasing importance. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. However, the author provides an insightful perspective on how to consider the problem - which is an important first step.

BP, the Gulf Oil Spill and Spatial Law

The Gulf oil spill is having an impact on a number of matters related to spatial law.

First, the incident itself shows the potential consequences if you push a technology - any technology - too far. It is important for the industry to keep in mind that spatial technology has tremendous potential - but it is not immune to errors, omission and/or human fallibility.

Second, spatial data is playing an important role in monitoring both the extent of the oil leak and its growing impact on the region. In fact, if the premise behind this report is true, it indicates just how valuable spatial data people consider spatial data to be in this matter. (FYI, I am still trying to figure out what actually happened).

Third, and perhaps most important, is the role spatial data will play in the litigation that will inevitably follow. Lawyers have been slow to introduce spatial technology in the court room. However, I predict that spatial data will play a critical role in Gulf oil spill litigation. One reason is simply that the nature of many of the claims and defenses will have a strong temporal-spatial component. A second reason is that the stakes are so high that that no expense will be spared to win a case. Finally, spatial technology has reached a tipping point in our society. As a result, lawyers, perhaps for the first time, will feel confident that judges and jurors will be able to understand what the spatial data is meant to portray. In fact, I believe that lawyers who understand the potential and the limits of spatial data in this context will have an upper hand.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

June 6 Intellectual Property Update

Apologies for the delay in posting - I have been on extended engagement in Abu Dhabi and posting was more difficult than I thought it would be be. There have been a number of important developments over the past few weeks - too many to put into one post. Therefore I am going to break them up based [roughly] upon subject area.

Intellectual Property Rights
I am still trying to understand the implications of the recent announcement regarding ESRI and It certainly has caused a great deal of concern within the geospatial community. According to this post from the All Points Blog, such concern may be unnecessary. However, given that (i) in the U.S. federal government data is not protected by copyright, (ii) the Obama Administration has been pushing greater transparency with respect to government operations, and (iii) the improvements in technology and open standards, I am surprised that the items Sean Gorman discusses in this post are still an issue with respect to federal government data.

OpenStreetMap is changing is data license model. The post includes a link that gives an excellent explanation as to why a new license was needed. I would be interested in your thoughts as to whether the new license works.

There has been a good deal of criticism about the judge's ruling in this case. Most of it has to do with the feeling that judge has ruled that spatial data is "software". I have a slightly different take - as I found the judge to be saying that spatial data is software as that terms is currently defined in the applicable section of the code. That is a subtle but important distinction because it suggests that the best way to address the question is not through litigation, but by putting pressure on the legislature to make the definition more accurate.