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Ordnance Survey hits legal dispute with geospatial start-up

24/07/19

Michael Cross Correspondent

Ordnance Survey (OS) has become involved in a legal tussle in which it has been accused of doing “everything within its power” to prevent the emergence of geospatial data start-up 77M.

Royal Courts of Justice entrance

The High Court has this week been presented with details of a case likely to test the Government’s commitment to opening public sector information to re-use.

Court papers seen by UKAuthority include claims that the proceedings show the “abject failure” of the policy thanks to “stubborn intransigence” on the part of the mapping agency.

The hearing is the culmination of a four-year dispute over whether Surrey based start-up 77M may use geographical data derived from OS products licensed to other public bodies to develop a commercial product.  

Proceedings began when 77M, which describes itself as “a small company with big data”, sought legal clarity over sets of polygons from HM Land Registry showing the line of freehold registered properties in England and Wales.

Matrix mash-up

The open source dataset was developed to comply with the EU INSPIRE directive, which came into force in 2007 with the aim of establishing a European infrastructure for spatial information. It was one of hundreds of datasets consulted to create the company’s mash-up database named Matrix. 

Ordnance Survey responded with a counterclaim that 77M had infringed its database rights or copyrights. As a result, 77M consented for the case to move from the specialist Intellectual Property Enterprise Court to the High Court, where it is being heard this week. 

While litigation over the re-use of Ordnance Survey is not new, the 77M case has a number of interesting angles. First, 77M says it is entitled to use the data under licences granted by other public bodies, including HM Land Registry, Registers of Scotland and Lichfield District Council.

OS contests whether these bodies, which are not parties to the case, were entitled to grant the licences. As part of its case, 77M alleges that Ordnance Survey induced HM Land Registry to break a contract with the company – a claim denied by OS.

In another unusual aspect, 77M maintains that no Ordnance Survey data has been transferred into Matrix for use by third parties; the datasets were only used within the company to ensure its mash-up was accurate. It claims this accords with the Open Government Licence, which allows for ‘internal extraction’. 

'Bloody minded'

Opening ‘skeleton arguments’ seen by UKauthority show highly polarised positions. 77M accuses Ordnance Survey of approaching the litigation “with the bloody minded attitude of a private litigant, and not as a model Crown representative”.

The company is claiming compensation for delays in marketing Matrix, which it says “has been buried beneath a cloud of uncertainty created by OS’s conduct, its accusations in the marketplace, and several interventions aimed at cutting off the supply of licensed data”.

It has found itself in a “turf war” between different government bodies. “OS would undoubtedly like to be able to monopolise the licensing of all Crown geospatial data via its various ‘licensing channels’, even datasets produced and maintained by other government departments which may be partly based on data which OS has supplied.”

For its part, Ordnance Survey’s skeleton argument maintains that OS “operates a clear and comprehensive licensing system”, in which some data is available on an open basis but the “Crown jewels” (including addresses which have been through the geocoding process) are generally only available for commercial use in premium products with a licence from OS or a licensed partner. 

It states that some of the licences relied on by 77M “should never have been granted on the terms they were by third parties”. 

OS assistance

Meanwhile, OS says it “has been mindful at all times of 77M’s position as a small company and has sought to address this by, among other things, agreeing to (limiting 77M’s exposure to costs) and providing practical assistance to 77M and its solicitors, such as preparing the trial bundles.” 

The hearing continues. Whichever way the verdict goes, it is an embarrassment for the Geospatial Commission, set up in 2017 with members including HM Land Registry and Ordnance Survey to co-ordinate the opening up of key national data sets for re-use.

Image: Royal Courts of Justice by Wei-Te Wong, CC BY-SA 2.0

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