GIS Tips – GIS and the Law

I love my job, whether creating works of art or building a new tool for automating some mundane task, it keeps me busy and stops me from causing trouble. One thing I don’t enjoy though, is the legal side of GIS.

Every data has a source, which someone, somewhere has created and owns rights to that data. A typical map or cartographic representation may contain 10 to 20 of these layered data sources….so where on the limited space do you put all those sources, furthermore, who are they? They were probably supplied by your line manager who got them from a sub-contractor who got them from a surveyor who nobody got the name of……

There are a wealth of books on this subject, I know, I have all 4 of them and was looking to write one myself, probably entitled something like “Before you publish your map, caveat EVERYTHING”, until I came across the Maine University website for the “First Readings of GIS Law“.

There are some great resources here and references to books which I have only heard of. Please have a read of some of the page below.

Written by Professor Harlan J. Onsrud of University of Maine.


First Readings in GIS Law

Note: The readings referenced in the following paragraphs are recommended for obtaining an initial overview of the legal issues surrounding the use and development of geographic information technologies and databases. HJO

The use of geographic information technologies is pervasive throughout business, government, industry and the scientific community in the United States. Conflicts are arising on a daily basis for those using geographic information systems and their affiliated databases, for those implementing such systems, and for those designing the next generations of spatial information technologies. Balancing among competing interests and resolving conflicts involved in the use of these technologies are growing problems for numerous parties within society. Among the problem domains of greatest concern in use of these technologies are those involving personal information privacy, intellectual property rights in geographic information, liability in the use of geographic data sets, public access to government geographic data sets, public goods aspects of geographic information in libraries, and sales of geographic information by government agencies.

Conflicts in regard to personal information privacy have become much more pervasive throughout the geographic information community within the past few years. Clarke (1999), Marx (1998), Hernon (1997), Curry (1997), Ontario (1997) and Onsrud et. al. (1994) provide more extensive discussions of the range of privacy conflicts in the use of geographic information. There also is a burgeoning literature on information privacy issues generally. A search of “information privacy” on Uncover reveals over 400 professional journal articles published in just the past two years alone. Also witnessing unprecedented growth in addressing information privacy issues are books, government reports, conferences and web sites (respective examples include book: Agre and Rotenburg (1998), reports: U.S. Dept of Commerce (1997), U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee (2000) conference: Cyberspace or Privacy: A New Legal Paradigm?, and web site:

For a discussion of conflicts and societal harms related to competing claims over intellectual property in geographic information (i.e. copyright, other IP, and additional ownership claims based on contract or database legislation), see NRC (1999a), NRC (1999b), Onsrud and Lopez (1998), Pluijmers (1997), Silverstein (1996), Karjala (1995) and Cho (1995).

Liability issues and conflicts over responsibility for damages in the event of harms caused through the use of spatial technologies or databases are explored in Onsrud (1999), Schultz (1999), Stewart, et. al. (1997) and Phillips (1996).

Public use of and access to government geographic databases is often the test case in local jurisdictions for resolving conflicts over access to government data generally. Such cases involve complex sets of tensions between citizens, government officials, non-profit groups and the commercial sector. Access to government geographic databases and the conflicts to which they give rise are discussed in Onsrud (1998b), Onsrud (1998c) and Lopez (1996) while access to government databases in general are discussed in Weis and Backlund (1997). (See also Los Angeles (1999)).

To treat the works in geolibraries foremost as commodities harms other valuable societal functions of information. Conflicts and tensions between the “public goods” and “private commodity” aspects of geographic data in library or library-like online settings are discussed in NRC (1999c) and Onsrud (1998d).

Finally, the sale of geographic data by government agencies and the imposition of restrictions on the use of data gathered at taxpayer expense continues as a highly contentious issue in jurisdictions across the entire nation as discussed in Perritt (1995), Onsrud et. al. (1996), Onsrud (1998a), and, generally, NRC (1999a&b).

GIS Law Webcast Lectures

The following lectures were presented in SIE525 Information Systems Law at the University of Maine during the fall of 2001.  View the videos using recent free versions of Netscape and Quicktime.  Consult access, software, and hardware requirements if you have difficulties.  Streaming video lectures and accompanying slides are available on the following topics:

Liability for Geographic Data, Products and Systems  Lectures 3, 4 and 6

Ethical Issues in the Use and Development of Information Systems  Lecture 5

Privacy and the Use of GIS  Lectures 7, 8 and 9

Intellectual Property Basics  Lectures 11, 12 and 13

Database Protection and Academic Research Lecture 14

Copyright, Copyleft and Evolving Concepts  Lectures 15 and 16

Public Information: FOIA and Open Records Laws  Lectures 17 and 19

Access, Use and Ownership Issues Surrounding State and Local Government Databases  Lecture 20

Evidentiary Admissibility of GIS Products  Lecture 22

Developing a Public Library of GIScience  For the webcast, see Duke Law School Conference on the Public Domain under Subject Study Area 2.  Use recent free versions of Explorer and Real Player.  For the example referred to in the lecture, see Public Library of GIScience.

References Cited Above

Agre, Philip E. and M. Rotenburg, 1998, Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape (Cambridge: MIT Press).

Carson, C., 1997, Laser Bones: Copyright Issues Raised by the Use of Information Technology in Archaeology. Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, 10(2), 281-319.

Cho, G., 1995, Legal Dilemmas in Geographic Information: Property, Ownership and Patents. Journal of Law and Information Science, 6(2), 193

Clarke, Roger, 1999, Person-Location and Person-Tracking: Technologies, Risks, and Policy Implications. Information, Technology and People,

Curry, M.R., 1998, Digital Places (New York: Routledge).

Hernon, P. and R. Duncan, 1997, GIS and Privacy. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 23(6), 515

Karjala, D., 1995, Copyright in Electronic Maps. Jurimetrics, 35(4), 395-416.

Lopez, X., 1996, The Impact of Government Information Policy on the Dissemination of Spatial Data. PhD Diss., University of Maine.

Los Angeles Police Department vs. United Reporting Publishing, U.S. Supreme Court, No.98-678, decided Dec. 7, 1999. (State law upholding authority of local government agencies to maintain open access to public records while limiting the First Amendment rights of corporations to use government databases for commercial purposes. See also Charles L. Black, Jr., former Dean of Yale Law School, “A New Birth of Freedom” in regard to development of new human rights for citizens as superior to corporate rights)

Marx, G. T., 1998, Ethics for the New Surveillance. The Information Society, July, 14(3), 171

National Research Council (NRC), 1999a, A Question of Balance: Private Rights and the Public Interest in Scientific and Technical Databases. Committee for a Study on Promoting Access to Scientific and Technical Data for the Public Interest, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications (CPSMA) (Washington D.C.: National Academy Press).

National Research Council (NRC), 1999b, The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age. Committee on Intellectual Property Rights in the Emerging Information Infrastructure, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications (Washington D.C.: National Academy Press).

National Research Council (NRC), 1999c, Distributed Geolibraries, Panel on Distributed Geolibraries, Mapping Science Committee, Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources (Washington D.C.: National Academy Press).

Onsrud, H.J., 1998a, Loss of Legal Access to Geographic Information: Measuring Losses or Developing Responses? In Janelle, D.G. and D. Hodge (Eds.), Information, Place and Cyberspace: Issues in Accessibility (Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag) 2000 – In press. 1998 version at (

Onsrud, H.J., 1998b, The Tragedy of the Information Commons. In Taylor, F. (Ed.), Policy Issues in Modern Cartography (Oxford: Elsevier Science) 141-158.

Onsrud, H.J., 1998c, Access to Geographic Information in the United States. Free accessibility of geo-information in the Netherlands, the United States, and the European Community, Proceedings, Oct 2., Delft, Netherlands, 33-41.

Onsrud, H.J., 1998d, Balancing Intellectual Property Rights and Public Goods Interests in Geolibraries. Fédération Internationales des Géomètres (FIG), Brighton England, July 25, 1998, 3, 222-226. (Based on earlier presentation to Conference on Geolibraries, Mapping Science Committee, National Research Council, June 15, 1998, Washington D.C.)

Onsrud, H.J., 1999, Liability in the Use of Geographic Systems and Geographic Data Sets. In Macquire, Goodchild, Rhind, and Longley, (Eds.), Geographic Information Systems: Principles, Techniques, Management, and Applications (New York: Wiley).

Onsrud, H.J. and X. Lopez, 1998, Intellectual Property Rights in Disseminating Digital Geographic Data, Products, and Services: Conflicts and Commonalities among European Union and United States Approaches. In Masser, Ian and Francois Salge, (Eds.), European Geographic Information Infrastructures: Opportunities and Pitfalls (London: Taylor and Francis) 153-167.

Onsrud, H.J., J. Johnson, and X. Lopez, 1994, Protecting Personal Privacy in Using Geographic Information Systems. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, LX(9), 1083-1095 (ESRI Award for Best Scientific Article in the Journal – 1994).

Onsrud, H.J., J. Johnson and J. Winnecki, 1996, GIS Dissemination Policy: Two Surveys and a Suggested Approach. Journal of Urban and Regional Information Systems, 8(2), 8-23.

Ontario Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner, 1997, Geographic Information Systems (April 1997)

Perritt, H., Jr., 1995, Should Local Governments Sell Local Spatial Databases Through State Monopolies? Jurimetrics, 35(4), 449-469

Phillips, J., 1996, Information Liability: The Possible Chilling Effect of Tort Claims Against Producers of Geographic Information Systems Data. Florida State University Law Review, 26(3), 743

Pluijmers, Y., 1997, Protecting Intellectual Property in Private Sector Spatial Datasets. MS Thesis. University of Maine.

Schultz, R., 1999, Application of Strict Product Liability to Aeronautical Chart Publishers. Journal of Air Law and Commerce. 64(2), 431-460.

Silverstein, M., 1996, The Copyrightability of Factual Compilations: An Interpretation of Feist Through Cases of Maps and Numbers. Annual Survey of American Law, 147-218.

Stewart, K., G. Cho and E. Clark, 1997, Geographical Information Systems and Legal Liability. Journal of Law and Information Science, 8(1), 84

U.S. Department Of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1997, Privacy and Self-Regulation in the Information Age.

Weiss, P.N. and P. Backlund, 1997, International Information Policy in Conflict: Open and Unrestricted Access versus Government Commercialization. In Kahin, B. and C. Nesson, (Eds.), Borders in Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press) 300-321

Whitman, D., 1999, Digital Recording of Real Estate Conveyances. John Marshall Law Review, 32(2), 227-268.

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