'The Ordnance Survey creates map data that we can't reuse for free - Crown Copyright is a blight on the information age in Britain'

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The Independent Online

Why do civil servants pay income tax? It's a conundrum that has always intrigued me. After all, these are people who are paid out of the money collected in taxes. So does the money they pay in tax then go straight back into their pockets? The circularity of it has always seemed daft.

I got a similar sensation last week reading the details behind the announcement that Getmapping.com, the aerial photography company, is quitting the stock market in order to preserve its cash. (Simply being listed costs about £80,000 annually, and it has cash reserves of only £500,000 from the £10m it raised when it floated three years ago).

What you may remember about Getmapping is that the Queen is a shareholder. What most people won't know is that one of the principal causes of its current financial problems is the Ordnance Survey - of which the Queen is the ultimate owner - and which (through "Crown Copyright") owns all its intellectual property. So the Queen is in effect fighting herself. But more important than the Queen's left hand-right hand feuding is this: Crown Copyright is a blight on the information age in Britain.

Getmapping's chief executive, Tristram Cary, doesn't mince his words. He thinks the Ordnance Survey service has lower overheads because it is subsidised through its monopoly position in physical maps. "It is a scandal that the OS has been allowed to compete using what is in effect public money," he said last week.

The OS doesn't accept this. "We don't cross-subsidise between the essential work we do at the request of the government, providing detailed maps for emergency services and local councils - which wouldn't be commercially viable - and our other work. It's all properly accounted for," says an OS spokesman.

That would be persuasive, except for one thing: all that work that the OS does at the behest of the government (and which thus becomes Crown Copyright, meaning - perversely - that you and I can't reuse it for free) generates data. Computer data. The sort that can be reused infinitely without wearing out.

The problem between Getmapping and the OS began with Getmapping's high-quality aerial maps of the UK. (You can still buy from its website; I'm not a shareholder, but I recommend them.) Getmapping wanted to sell those to the OS, but a dispute blew up over what Cary says were "subjective specifications criteria" (translation: the sides couldn't agree whether the work was good enough) for aerial pictures of Scotland, intended for the OS to draw up a map of the country. Getmapping also tried bringing an "abuse of dominant position" case against the OS; it had to give that up in June, and pay out £125,000.

Mapping data is enormously useful, and valuable. In the US, the Geological Survey maps the country - and then makes the data available freely to any company that wants it. Or, indeed, to you and I. That allows entrepreneurs to set up companies to turn that into really valuable location-based information. It lets people set up websites that exploit the data, without worrying whether they're infringing medieval copyright, and so provide useful services.

After all, knowing where you are is a key piece of information. Those companies create jobs; the services they create encourage people to travel and to spend money. They're all good for the economy.

In Britain, for reasons I can't even begin to understand, all sorts of government arms - the Ordnance Survey, the UK Hydrographic Office - generate useful data that people and businesses could build on, if it were made available for free, and then lock it away and sue anyone who tries to copy it. The OS says it is an agency that receives no government subsidy, but instead has to cover its annual £110m costs, and the demand for a 9 per cent annual return on capital invested, through its sales. So if you want to use map data, you have to pay up. It's a safe bet that far fewer people offer map-based data in the UK than would if the OS data was free as in the US.

What's more, on the subsidy point, the OS has only been subsidy-free since 1999, by which time all the UK's map data was completely digitised. So we've already paid, through our taxes, for the collection of that data. It's our data. We own it, not the Queen.

The OS is also obliged to update that data for the emergency services, and local and central government. It doesn't make a profit on those contracts. But once it's captured the data, it can use it again to generate its entire range of maps and data. So it has an absurdly dominant position. It's as if BT had the exclusive contract to provide phone services for all of government and the local councils, and owned the copyright to all the phone directories, so that if you wanted to set up a rival phone company you would have to find out everyone's phone number, one by one. Oh, and BT would have the Queen's authority behind it to sue you if it thought you had stolen any of its data.

However, the telephone market is much more competitive. There's no Crown Copyright on it. The mapping market could be too: putting the OS back on to the public purse would cost just £100m annually. If Tony Blair is really serious about e-government, he should consider the best way to enable it. Freeing up the map data would cost a small amount - but it would make many more people much richer. Even the Queen might see some profit from it. It might help her pay her taxes.