finding Russian tanks in Polish forests

In August and September of 2013, I spent several weeks in the woods of Poland teaching LiDAR processing with LAStools to four groups of forestry students as part of the ForseenPOMERANIA camp. Wanting to be locally relevant, I switched my usual training data for a 500 by 500 meter tile of LiDAR from nearby forest that I randomly clipped from the massive amount of data that was handed to me. I did not do a test run before the workshop because I trust my algorithms. Imagine the shock when – during my live demo on the first day of teaching – the bare-earth points extracted with “lasground.exe” showed unexpected distortions: large, weird-looking bumps appeared when generating a hillshade with “las2dem.exe” for terrain that was completely flat.

Turns out we found remains of  WW II tank positions. We later drove to the site and verified our findings on the ground.

At that time I had generated a larger 6km by 6km bare-earth hillshade of the area which I showed to a local ranger who pointed out the defensive moat that was dug to stop tanks from advancing. It also became clear that the tanks were aiming towards the north-west, hence at Germany, suggesting they were Russian positions. When you follow the direction the line of tanks are pointing at you can find craters and evidence of the German trenches in the hills.

This was in August. On my return in September, I would meet a retired gentleman whose hobby was a variation of geo-caching: finding old German bunkers and pin-pointing their exact GPS coordinates starting from rough locations on old maps available in souvenir shops and historic records. He confirmed that the positions we found were from late WW-II when Russian forces were advancing fast towards the Eastern seaboard of Germany but were digging in whenever encountering pockets of strong resistance. The saga continues here

Can you copyright LiDAR?

UPDATE: The situation has changed. Make sure you also read this.

A few weeks ago, I wanted to demonstrate how geometric compression can shorten download times for online dissemination of 3D archeological artifacts. The demo failed. My web page was gone. The web admin told me later that he had to delete it after receiving an email from a director at CyArk stating that I was “[…] hosting unauthorized content from CyArk […] ” and that “[…] Dr. Isenburg gained unauthorized access to our information and the re-posted it to his webpage […]”. Bummer. Unintentionally, I had become “the raider of the CyArk”. A point plunderer. A LiDAR looter. A scan scrounger. A laser pirate … arrr … (-;

How did I fall so low? After reading this LiDAR news article about CyArk’s new online 3D viewer I invested serious time into understanding their content delivery system and suggested how to shorten download times as I had done a lot of prior research on this particular topic (see this, this, this or this page). So, I created several interactive java-based web pages for them to demonstrate how – with some quantization, simple prediction, and clever scripting – more web-efficient 3D content might be possible. I did these experiments with their data sets to allow an apples-to-apples comparison: a point model (Ti’kal) and a mesh model (Mount Rushmore).


After a long technical exchange the person at CyArk suddenly demanded that I take down the compressed content. I was surprised and asked why I should have to delete these illustrative examples on 3D compression that represented a significant investment in volunteered time and energy.

Me: “What you mean with take down? Delete it from my webpages? But I am using it as a purely educational example for scanner precision and coordinate resolution. I am not promoting it in any context that would interfere with the mission of CyArk. I do not quite follow the imperative here. Aren’t you a non-profit site dedicated to science and education? And anyone could download those points clouds from your site just the way I did it. It’s not rocket science … (-:”

Person at CyArk: “And, yes, to clarify my request, I would like you to delete any content from your server or webpages. Sorry if I was vague. Thanks!”

Me: “I believe I am in accordance with both Ben (Kacyra)’s vision and the creative commons license with my educational use of the 3D content (see Is there something I am missing?”

I considered myself well informed about CyArk’s mission on providing open access to 3D data for research, education, and virtual tourism through various media such as Wikipedia and Ben Kacyra’s visionary TED talk. I assumed that my creative commons argument had resonated because I did not hear back from them. I only realized that CyArk was not interested in explaining their licensing but simply had my pages removed when I tried to access this demo.

A few days ago I saw Tom Greaves, executive director at CyArk, commenting “Sweeeet use of CyArk data.” on their blog entry which describes the creation of a sugary fudge replica of Ti’kal – the very same data set that I had been using – for the launch event of a new sugar series by British-based multinational agribusiness Tate & Lyle.

Tik’al Fudge Cake made with golden caster sugar, over 80 cm tall

I like to have fun with LiDAR and appreciate the educational factor of such events. Yet I wonder whether the Guatemalan people would be that much happier to see their ancient cultural heritage presented as a piece of cake to promote a new line of sugars than to see it used as a demo on how to Web-optimize 3D content … (-;

I took this as an opportunity to – once more – inquire about the creative commons license of CyArk and I finally received an answer from Tom.

Dear Dr. Isenburg,

Please understand that only some of […]     […] have any questions.

Tom Greaves

Executive Director

Unfortunately Tom did “not recall giving” me his “permission to publish” his “private correspondence” as he pointed out shortly after this blog article went live, so I had to remove the reprint of his email. It essentially said that much of the data collected by CyArk remains property of the site owners and that Cake for Breakfast obtained permission to use the 3D scan as the secret ingredient for their Mayan bake job.

copyright cartoon

After inquiring with Tom “So which models are creative commons and which not?” I quickly got the surprising response from Tom that: “None of our 3D point cloud is available under Creative Commons. Only some of the 2D image data is covered by this.

Now this is certainly not what I had been reading into their press releases and news articles. The data-generous openness in access to 3D data that is advertised for example on their mission statement: “Digital Preservation is ‘Preserving cultural heritage sites through collecting, archiving and providing open access to data created by 3D laser scanning, digital modeling, and other state-of-the-art technologies,’ the CyArk Mission.” is apparently not the practiced reality.

So I asked in my LAStools user forum about the experiences of others: What are the most and least permitting licenses for such data and what do they mean in practice? How do I know what is open and what not? Can you help clarifying what “creative commons” licensing means and what it allows and forbids so I don’t violate anyone’s license in the future. This sparked discussions with interesting outcomes:

  1. the creative commons (non-commercial) license is useless
    The folks behind @OpenAccessArch picked up the story to provide their view of the particularities of the creative commons (non-commercial) license used by CyArk in a long blog post titled “Creative Commons Non-commercial A Cruel Joke.
  2. it is in general not possible to copyright a LiDAR scan
    Doug Rocks-Macqueen from @OpenAccessArch also started the fundamental discussion whether it is even possible to copyright a LiDAR scan in the first place. Apparently not – at least not for an object whose copyright has already expired and for details read this message thread. His closing argument was that in this legal battle between Meshwerks, Inc. and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s opinion that “3D models of physical objects, if faithfully and accurately representing the original, are not original enough to warrant copyright protection.”
  3. do not engage in open-washing … (-:
    In CyArk’s defense it needs to be said that there is probably a collision between their vision and the contract terms specified by the different site owners that they have to respect in order to get the permission to scan a site. What is lacking are clear terms of use in their communications and proper protection mechanisms. The academic pioneers of 3D scanning at Stanford university had to deal with similar issues during their Digital Michelangelo Project and created ScanView: a secure client / server rendering system that permits users to examine 3D models, but not extract the underlying data. In summary: do not claim your data is open and allow access to it when it is not.

With all the publicity I was worried that my little rabble rousing might be perceived as disruptive instead of constructive by the community until someone reassured me that: “I think we’re all quite happy that the discussion is happening. Between you and me, CyArk have a reputation as being rather less open with their data than their publicity would suggest.” … (-;

Martin @rapidlasso

PS: Be aware that all comments to this article will be considered “creative commons”. Or maybe not … (-;

cyark_tikal_sugarcubes_400The (loosely related) image shown above was obtained here and is courtesy of CyArk. I assume this use is allowed under their copyright and does not violate the creative commons (non-commercial) license … (-;

Addendum (May 1st, 2013): As a result of this article CyArk not only updated their copyright notice to exclude point clouds from the Creative Commons license but also added a very clear data use policy statement.