16 thoughts on “Can you copyright LiDAR?

  1. Very interesting thanks Martin. I’m pleased that you are able to take up these issues and keep us informed.
    Regards Bob Peever

  2. Pingback: Copyright Discussion of LiDAR Data | Weather in the City

  3. I had a few notes based on items that came up in the related discussion. I have a background in software licensing, not because I am a lawyer, but because when I worked for Sun Microsystems (1995 – 2008) I was involved in moving the Java platform to open source. My role was as the liaison between engineering and legal for that project. I also have a background having co-founded a nonprofit based in San Francisco in 2002 (yes my time overlapped, I was part-time at Sun while working on the legal open source issues for Java)

    It is important to note that being a nonprofit in the US, does not restrict people from using proprietary licenses or for charging fees for what they do. It does have other requirements about how the organization is run, specifically that there cannot be any form of “profit sharing” and that money that is raised is used to further the nonprofit mission of the organization. An example is that a ballet company is almost always a nonprofit in the US, but they can sell tickets to their performances. Most ballet companies do not make enough from ticket sales to pay all their costs, so they have to raise additional funds as well. Nonprofits can pay people salaries – but those salaries have to be consistent (or less) than what others with similar experience and duties would be paid in the commercial sector. There are many other rules too. My point is that just because an entity is a nonprofit does not mean they have to give everything away. However, sometimes this can be dictated by a funder. My nonprofit organization has a principle of working to develop open source software in computational photography. We do this through collaboration with a number of research labs and universities. We state that we’re doing this in our funding proposals, and some of the agencies we approach for funding only fund open source projects, or at least require that the software be given away (not necessarily the source code). In addition we produce user guides and other materials that are available under a CC license. On top of this work we provide consulting and training for a fee. I would argue we are more open than CyArk with our work, but the point is that nonprofits legally have a lot of flexibility in terms of charging or or giving away their work.

    And finally, a general note about copyrighted material. If something is marked as copyrighted material, (and that copyright holds up if challenged) then you have no rights to do anything with the material, unless there is a license that grants you rights. I agree that CyArk’s website with it’s statement of CC license could easily be misunderstood. Many individuals and institutions use open source licenses for code and CC licenses for content. (this includes my organization) This is because they want to retain copyright, and they want to allow certain uses with certain rules or limits. This is different than public domain, which says that no one has rights in it and anyone can do as they wish. Licenses work in conjunction with copyright. You have copyrighted material, and then you give people certain rights to use it (and usually some restrictions as well) The copyright holder can also license their material under different licenses to different people as they see fit. That’s the advantage of being the copyright holder.

    At the end of the day, you have to judge a nonprofit on the work they do, and how they do it.

    I hope this information is helpful.

    Carla Schroer
    Cultural Heritage Imaging

  4. While CyArk is a non-profit and they claim to have open access to data, they have actually always acted in a very proprietary manner, not just with their data, but also with many of their software tools. They suggest a lot more openness with their data than is there. They even use the term “open access” in their mission statement which like an “open source” license for software source code, has a specific meaning (see http://www.plos.org/about/open-access/) which they clearly do not meet.

    In response to Martin they seem to be hiding behind the requirements of the sites who deposited data with them, but I suggest this isn’t quite accurate. CyArk does not publish a copy of the license that anyone who wants to deposit data with them must sign. I find this curious all by itself – what are they hiding that they don’t want people to know the terms required to deposit data with them? I have heard from more than one source, that it basically requires that CyArk get all rights to the data, and it is an exclusive license, so the person/entity who collected/created the data gives up some rights to their own data. (I have not personally seen the agreement – since they don’t publish it.) You might try asking them for a copy of their agreement. It would be interesting to see what they say.

    No real repository, like the Archaeological Data Service in the UK, would have a secret license with the kinds of terms CyArk purportedly uses. CyArk should also stop using the term “open access” because that has real meaning, and they don’t even come close to meeting the requirements of open access with their materials.

  5. What I find most interesting is the fundamental question whether a 3D scan of a real site can be copyrighted. As others have pointed out, it is factual data, so it should not be copyrightable.

    Aggravating factors are of course, that the factual data in this case is actually “cultural heritage”, something which should not be proprietary, but rather a common good.

  6. I found early evidence in the comment section of an announcement for the Mount Rushmore Mobile App that CyArk’s 3D data is for the most part not meant for public dissemination (see: http://archive.cyark.org/cyark-and-nps-launch-mount-rushmore-mobile-app-blog) as you can see in the exchange that I copy below:

    June 16th, 2012 Michael Raphael said:
    Similar question – given this is a national monument, when will the 3D data be available to the public for download so anyone can use it in Unity or any other 3D platform for creative derivatives? For that matter, who actually owns this data – CyArk, NPS, or the U.S. public?

    June 16th, 2012 Justin Barton said:
    Michael, The data will not be available to the public beyond our online viewer (which is decimated and does not allow download of the data), but does allow full 3D viewing, measuring and section views. In all CyArk projects, the site owner (in this case the NPS) owns the data. And unfortunately because the site is of high international prominence, there are security concerns that will prevent the undecimated, highly accurate, very detailed original data from becoming available to the public as you mentioned.

  7. Returning to Martin’s original question about the happiness of Guatemalan people, I’ll throw in my five cents from the perspective of cultural heritage.

    In my past working experience, engineers and scientists in varied fields love to dabble with a little bit of CH, to show less tech savvy what marvels one can do. In return they may get exciting experiences in exotic places…Projects that target something defined as major world heritage are more likely to get funding which is why the pyramids and Mona Lisa have been scanned several times. These high profile projects publish articles, hope to get a couple of dashing newspaper stories & TV appearances and not surprisingly the digital content often vanishes in the end – like a fart in Sahara. The poorer the owner of the site, the less likely he/she/it/they are to get anything in return.

    Recently Europeana has been created as a common public platform for us Europeans to publish digital heritage, which I hope will improve the situation of preserving the digital data here given time. For instance here in Finland CH authorities & players are quite poor, so common European plans to digitize, archive and access the data – to develop and create a common infra – are their hope.

    CyArk, a private foundation, typically concentrates only on major heritage sites. So I would advice everyone really wanting to contribute to concentrate on the less flashy and less known places. Believe me, your digital documentation may be the only one that these sites will ever get. And there are plenty of interesting stuff around if you ask your local communities what they find important. Please think what your lasting contribution could be, if you want to act in a sustainable way. Some people have an crazy idea that CH makes you rich, but I have never encountered a company which has done so. In fact preserving CH usually makes you financially poor as everyone owning an old house may have noticed

    CyArk as a charity has started raising funding to continue its work, so I hope to see that data archive in 10 years time as well. Normally CH people think of archiving in the perspective of hundreds of years and only states can basically afford it. And not even many states anymore, as we have seen from recent plans to cut CH. Physical and digital collections are a big problem.

    Such NGOs have their place in our societies, but personally I see no reason to fund or support one that concentrates only on one aspect of CH documentation – and does not create public data. Others may have different opinions though.
    However, at the same time we have traditional CH organizations with legal obligations wondering what to do as their funding is cut. In some countries they have not had much of a budget in the past either. Here is one recent example of cutting funds in Germany https://www.openpetition.de/petition/online/angekuendigte-streichung-der-landeszuschuesse-fuer-die-archaeologie-und-denkmalpflege-zuruecknehmen.

    And a word of warning in the end: cultural heritage wakes surprising passions, so people are often willing to bury the material rather that give it to the others. Worthless things suddenly become worth fortunes and no, local people may not get access or rights to use their own CH. Take also care not to end up in the middle of local fights, because some countries or communities are still building up their identity based on their past heroics – true, imagined, invented, whatever.

  8. Besides most of us still being confused on whether you can copyright a LiDAR scan or not, here is one positive outcome to report:.CyArk has just published very detailed information about its data use policy including an explanation what they meant with providing “open access” to the 3D data.


    So the issue is resolved. I never had any need for these particular data sets in the first place. They were merely the first examples I got my hands on to showcase potential transmission savings to CyArk’s development team. And after they expressed little interest in my ideas to compress the 3D content to speed up download times for their online viewer, I was just assuming I would be able to re-purpose my demos for other audiences …

  9. Interesting follow-up comment by Brent W. Gelhar in the mobile mapping group on LinkedIn:

    There was a recent discussion of this exact topic in the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp) weekly radio broadcast “Spark”. This link will take you to the show’s home page where you can listen to and/or download portions of episodes


    The episode no.217 has segments which address “3D and the Law” and “3D Piracy”. These two segments clarify very well that this is a really unclear issue, and it will probably take 10 years or more to work it all out, just as photocopiers,video cassette, e-book, MP3 and other technologies have affected copyright and trademark law interpretations. Just think, how did the Gutenberg press influence trademarks and copyrights? All those poor monks spending their days manually copying the Bible quickly became unemployed but the impact on humanity was dramatic (and positive), just as the emerging 3D technologies are proving to be.

  10. Or you could get your own 3d scanner. We’re about to launch one on Kickstarter that scans every bit as well as Lidar yet is less than $1,000. Contact me if you want to know more.

  11. Thanks for the link Martin. Luckily all the disciplines are trying to develop the principles of information modeling (as we call it in Finnish) e.g. BIM about the same time so one can actually compare them. Bill’s basic principles “1) Measurement 2) Raw data 3) Metadata 4) Process history” and the overall tendency to transparency are sound aims.
    However, the copyright issues and intellectual property rights are and will be a pain…true clash of cultures 😉 I was just reading the morning news about the Trans-Pacific partnership and almost spilled my coffee…

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