The State of Open Data Licenses in Canada and where to go from here

(for readers less interested in Open Data – I promise something different tomorrow)

In February I wrote how 2011 would be the year of the license for Canada’s open data community. This has indeed been the case. For public servants and politicians overseeing the various open data projects happening in Canada and around the world, here is an outline of where we are, and what I hope will happen next. For citizens I hope this will serve as a primer and help explain why this matters. For non-Canadians, I hope this can help you strategize how to deal with the different levels of government in your own country.

This is important stuff, and will be important to ensure success in the next open data challenge: aligning different jurisdictions around common standards.

Why Licenses Matter

Licenses matter because they determine how you are able to use government data – a public asset. As I outlined in the three laws of open data, data is only open if it can be found, be played with and be shared. The license deals with the last of these. If you are able to take government data, find some flaw or use it to improve a service, it means nothing if you are not able to share what you create with others. The more freedom you have in doing this, the better.

What we want from the license regime (and for your government)

There are a couple of interests one is trying to balance in creating a license regime. You want:

  • Open: there should maximum freedom for reuse (see above, and this blog post)
  • Secure: it offers governments appropriate protections for privacy and security
  • Simplicity: to keep down legal costs low, and make it easier for everyone to understand
  • Standardized: so my work is accessible across jurisdictions
  • Stable: so I know that the government won’t change the rules on me

At the moment, two licenses in Canada meet these tests. The Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL) used by Surrey, Langley, Winnipeg (for its transit data) and the BC government open data portal license (which is a copy of the UK Open Government license).

Presently a bunch of licenses do not. This includes the Government of Canada Open Data Licence Agreement for Unrestricted Use of Canada’s Data (couldn’t they choose a better name? But for a real critique of why, read this blog post). It also includes the variants of the license created by Vancouver and now used by Toronto, Ottawa and Edmonton (among others). Full disclosure, I was peripherally involved in the creation of this license – it was necessary at the time.

Both these licenses are not standardized, have restrictions in them not found in the UK/BC Open Government License and the PDDL and are anything but simple. Nor are they stable. At any time the government can revoke them. In other words, many developers and companies interested in open data dislike them immensely.

Where do we go from here?

At the moment there are a range of licenses available in Canada – this undermines the ability of developers to create software that uses open data across multiple jurisdictions.

First, the launch of BC’s open data portal and its use of the UK Open Government License has reset the debate in this country. The Federal government, which has an awkward, onerous and unloved license should stop trying to create a new license that simply adds unnecessary complexity and creates confusion for software developers. (I detail the voluminous problems with the Federal license here.)

Instead the Feds should adopt the UK Open Government Licence and push for it to be a standard, both for the provinces and federal government agencies, as well as for other common wealth countries. Its refusal to adopt the UK license is deeply puzzling. It has offered no explanation about why it can’t, indeed, it would be interesting to hear what the Federal Government believes it knows that the UK government (which has been doing this for much longer) and the BC government doesn’t know.

What I predict will happen is that more and more provinces will adopt the UK license and increasingly the Feds will look isolated and ridiculous. Barring some explanation, this silliness should end.

At the municipal level, things are more complicated. If you look at the open data portals of Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and Ottawa (sometimes referred to as the G4) you’ll notice each has a similar paragraph:

The Cities of Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto have recently joined forces to collaborate on an “Open Data Framework”. The project aims to enhance current open data initiatives in the areas of data standards and terms of use agreements. Please contact us for further information.

This paragraph has been sitting on these sites for well over a year now (approaching almost two years) but in terms of data standards and common terms of use the work, to date, the G4 has produced nothing tangible for end users. (Full disclosure, I have sat in on some of these meetings.) The G4 cities, which were leaders, are now languishing with a license that actually puts them in the middle, not the front of the pack. They remain ahead of the bulk of Canadian cities that have no open data, but, in terms of license, behind the aforementioned cities of Surrey, Langley, Winnipeg (for its transit data).

These second generation open data cities either had fewer resources or drew the right lessons and have leap-frogged the G4 cities by adopting the PDDL – something they did because it essentially outsourced the management of the license to a competent third party. It maximized the effectiveness of their data, while limiting their costs all while giving them the same level of protection.

The UK and BC versions of the Open Government License could work for the cities, but the PDDL is a better license. Also, it is well managed. If the cities were to adopt the OGL it wouldn’t be the end of the world but it also isn’t necessary. It probably makes more sense for them to simply follow the new leaders in the space and adopt the PDDL as this will less restrictive and easier to adopt.

Thus, speaking personally, the ideal situation in Canada would be that:

  • the Federal and Provincial Governments to adopt the UK/BC Open Government License. I’d love to live in a world where the adopted the PDDL, but my conversations with them lead me to believe this simply is not likely in the near to mid term. I think 99% of software developers out there will agree that the Open Government License is an acceptable substitute. and
  • the municipalities push to adopt the PDDL. Already several municipalities have done this and the world has not ended. The bar has been set.

The worse outcome would be:

  • the G4 municipalities invent some new license. The last thing the world needs is another open data license to confuse users and increase legal costs.
  • the federal government continues along the path of evolving its own license. Its license was born broken and is unnecessary.

Sadly, I see little evidence for optimism at the federal level. However, I’m optimistic about the cities and provinces. The fact that most new open data portals at the municipal level have adopted the PDDL suggests that many in these governments “get it”. I also think the launch of will spur other provinces to be intelligent about their license choice.



11 thoughts on “The State of Open Data Licenses in Canada and where to go from here

  1. Nanaimoite

    I’d guess that some municipalities are getting legal guidance on the PDDL that is preventing them from using it without political direction.  My hope is that the BC Government license may be a viable alternative for those municipalities.

    1. David Eaves

      +1 to the that Leroy. At the very minimum it needs some serious rethinking. But the United States has survived, some would even say prospered for a couple hundred years without crown copyright (and no licensing at all) for government materials. I think Canada and other countries can make it work too.

  2. @rob_giggey

    I’d like to comment as a member of the “G4” but not on behalf of them.  Jason is right about the legal guidance on the PDDL in that we’re not getting strong support, if any, to move towards this license and partly for one of the points CIPPIC made it its detailed review ( ) “…the Copyright Act does not contemplate a “public domain” and whether such an assignment is possible has not been tested in the courts.”  And further it wasn’t clear from their review that the PDDL was the best option for either the Cities or OpenData users for a number of other reasons.  And because of this mixed review, and the legal guidance we were receiving, which considered the CIPPIC work, and the fact that not many jurisdictions have actually adopted the PDDL it did not seem like the logical choice to move to.  We also had/have no interest in switching licences frequently if only so that users of the data sets can clearly understand what they are dealing with. 

    Moving forward, and despite the time it has taken us to revise our licences, I think that the BC adaptation of the UK license now presents us with the best option for our cities to consider.  It seems to address most of the concerns that users have had with our licenses and preliminary legal review of it is very promising (and congratulations to the BCData team).  We’re also dedicated to promoting a common license amongst jurisdictions as much as possible, hence our adoptions of the Vancouver license to start.  And it would be my hope, as well, that as more and more provinces, and cities, create opendata catalogues that they will also strongly consider the UK/BC license, so that we could look to have a pan-Canadian license, and if the likelihood of the Federal Government changing their license is as grim as you stat, this might help drive them to reconsider as well. 

    Thanks for the article.

    1. David Eaves

      Hi Rob,

      I actually don’t think the OGL is the best option, it is only the best option for you as a group (see more below). That said, I’ve got a ton of respect for the work you are doing and know you want a common license as well (which is why it was great Ottawa didn’t create its own license.

      I find the CIPPIC report problematic on at least one level. It is unclear to me why they are talking about Copyright for almost the first half of the document. Canadian law has already determined that you cannot copyright data or facts. All you can do is copyright the structure of data – if you choose to – which the cities don’t need to do if they don’t want to.

      Indeed on page 8 of the report they note that the PDDL “…only covers copyright for facts where the jurisdiction provides for such copyright protection.” Canada is a jurisdiction where facts cannot be copyrighted – therefor talking about copyright law should not form part of the assessment. I’m very open to being told I’m wrong about this, but only the legal advice I received to date on open data has suggested this fact.

      Most importantly, the CIPPIC doc is clear that the PDDL is a viable option. It places it on parity with the other choices. The opening section of the conclusion states: “In general the three licenses pose very slight risks to licensors.” Essentially the PDDL is no worse than the current license, but has the benefit of being standardized.

      Ultimately, I believe in most cases moving off the current license (to either PDDL or the UK’s OGL) is going to require influence within the city bureaucracy and a champion who is at least at the CIO level.

      But for the G4 there is a particular political problem of their own creation. The G4 cities are now trapped by their alliance. One or maybe even two of them might be willing to move to the PDDL, but don’t want to do so because if they moved and the others didn’t, it would essentially break the G4 (or expose the fact that the G4 aren’t really aligned). Consequently, the G4 now has to move at the pace of its slowest members – while on the licensing front, it is being outpaced by some new arrivers on the scene who’ve opted for more progressive options. Let’s be clear, if the G4 adopt the UK OGL it isn’t because it is the best license, it’s because it’s the only one they could collectively agree on. There’s a difference.

      Perhaps the OGL license is a viable alternative, and I it would be acceptable, but it isn’t necessary, and it isn’t the best outcome.

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