Legal/State Of The License/Anti-hijack

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We would like OpenStreetMap data to be free and open, not just now but forever.

In State of the License terms, the License Working Group believes that this goal has been achieved as described below. This might change if we switched to a non-share-alike license.

What do we mean by "anti-hijack"?

Some apparently open projects have transformed into commercial projects. The classic example is the perceived hijack of the CDDB, Compact Disc Database project, by Gracenote. According to Wikipedia, "The original software behind CDDB was released under the GNU General Public License, and many people submitted CD information thinking the service would also remain free."

The OpenStreetMap therefore needs anti-hijack measures to stop this ever happening to our project.

How our anti-hijack works

The twin tools are the Contributor Terms and Share-Alike.

Contributor Terms Poison Pill

It is possible, though very unlikely and difficult, that a group of people could take over the OpenStreetMap Foundation by membership stacking and change its articles of incorporation.

This eventuality is handled in the Contributor Terms:

  • By design, it does not have any provision allowing the Foundation to unilaterally change the terms.
  • The Foundation is obliged to always publish OpenStreetMap data under, and only under, a free and open license.
  • If it tried to go commercial, it would break the contract with hundreds of thousands of contributors and lose the rights to continue publishing at all. Contributors could then set up a new body.


The other form of commercial attack is prevented by having a share-alike license and is probably the strongest strategic reason for having a share-alike license.

Here is a scenario described by the Free Software Foundation and adapted to data and OpenStreetMap:

  • Company A has good networked database resources. It also spends a lot of money to create a really slick easy-to-use and free tools to contribute OSM data.
  • For a while, it updates the main OSM database with all these contributions.
  • Contributors switch over to the Company A system because it is easier.
  • Company A later switches off updates to the main OSM database. It has now forked the project.

If OpenStreetMap data is under a share-alike license, this is not useful to Company A. It still has to provide its fork under the same license.

If OpenStreetMap data is a under a Public Domain-like or attribution-only license, Company A can now switch to a commercial model ... perhaps like Google.

Is this a real risk?

While OpenStreetMap is still focused on contributing and trying to collect data for a basic map of not just a few countries but the whole world ... yes. We need as many contributors as possible.

Arguably this threat decreases in two ways. First, OpenStreetMap's infrastructure becomes more sophisticated so commercial companies cannot offer anything more attractive. Second, when the basic data collection is "done" and OpenStreetMap project switches to maintenance and collection of esoteric and special interest data. At the point, the strategic requirement is for as many users as possible.