International Geologiical Congress - Oslo 2008


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IEI-15 Accessing and sharing geoscience information: the problems and issues of disseminating geoscience data in a digital era (including digital rights management, licensing, IPR, copyright, public sector data for free or a fee, and liability)


Fee or free, for better or for worse? An exploration of the issues around charging, access and legal liability of geoscience information


Richard Hughes, British Geological Survey (United Kingdom)


The policies of the world's geological surveys and agencies on charging for geoscience information are governed largely by policies of their governmental departmental sponsors. At one end of the spectrum is the free data model, in which all data, information and related intellectual property produced at public expense is made available free of charge for unrestricted use. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the model in which fees are charged for the use of data and information, and in which the allowable end uses of the data are clearly defined and restricted through licence agreements. Debate over the advantages and disadvantages of each model is never dull, and both sides of the argument can be very persuasive. The more dispassionate views of economists - and indeed private sector representatives of the innovative and enterprising knowledge economy - on which model contributes more towards economic growth are equally divided.
However, it is undeniable that purchasers of data have very different expectations to users of free data, and rightly so. In exchange for their money, purchasers expect to receive quality assured data and information, created to the highest standards, with quantified uncertainties. The issue of liability for data and information is also heightened very significantly when money changes hands, and fee-charging organisations face a higher risk of potentially damaging and expensive legal action. Organisations that charge for their data and information have additional obligations to protect their valuable intellectual property against improper uses that fall outside the terms of licence agreements. These organisations can face dilemmas when, in emergency situations, their data and information are of real and immediate value to environmental protection agencies.
The geological surveys and agencies that levy charges therefore face a set of problems challenges beyond the technical and scientific challenges common to all organisations that create and deliver digital data. Yet all these challenges are manageable and none is insurmountable. The charging organisations are subject to a very high level of scrutiny and accountability, and can be required also to be able to demonstrate a return on investment. Arguably they also have a more critical and closer understanding of their users' needs, borne out of necessity. Relevance to user need is fundamentally important to the success and sustainability of all geological surveys, whatever their funding mechanism and policy on recovery of costs.
The complex issues surrounding different access and charging regimes, protection of intellectual property and liability will be explored in order to draw out essential lessons of relevance and value to all parts of the geological survey community.


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