IP rights in geospatial data

Several strands of information come together. On 14th December was published the latest court decision in the long-running saga between 77M Limited and Ordnance Survey Limited.

77M is a private company that has developed and is commercialising a database of UK land and properties and has, or at some time in the past had, a licence from the UK Land Registry (HMLR) to access one of the latter’s databases.

The Ordnance Survey (OS) was formed several hundred years ago and was originally part of the army. Nowadays it is a company owned by the government. It is best known for providing high-quality maps of the United Kingdom. When IP Draughts was at junior school, he was taught about the the OS’s 1 inch to 1 mile (or 1:36,360) map. Since metrication in the UK in the late 1960s and 1970s, this set of maps was discontinued, and the closest equivalent has been the 1:50,000 map. In other words, like HMLR, OS has developed so-called geospatial data in relation to the UK.

The case linked above is a decision of Mr Justice Arnold, who rejected an application for summary judgment by OS. OS sought to have a claim by 77M rejected, that OS had induced HMLR to breach a contract under which it supplied property-related data from its database to 77M.

The arguments in that case are only of passing interest, and anyway the underlying facts are not fully explained in this interim decision. Arnold J noted that the contract in question was described as a “contract schedule” (suggesting to IP Draughts that it might have originally been part of a larger master services agreement, although this is not stated in the decision) and provided for a fee of £2,500 in return for undertaking certain searches. 77M argued that this was an “ongoing” contract, while OS argued it was a one-off contract. After reviewing clauses of a “lamentably badly drafted” contract that pointed in either direction, Arnold J declined to hold that OS’s case was so strong that it should get summary judgment. The interpretation of the contract should await full trial of the action.

The larger dispute between 77M and OS has been rumbling through the courts, and has not finished yet. An earlier hearing considered the question of when it was appropriate to transfer cases between the low-cost Intellectual Property Enterprise Court and the High Court.

Standing back from the case, what is going on? IP Draughts has no inside information about the case, but he is aware that the UK government is pressing ahead with plans to develop a national strategy to commercialise the UK’s geospatial data, much of which has been developed by government bodies and agencies, including OS and HMLR.

To help formulate this strategy, the government is forming a Geospatial Commission. The appointments of the chair and vice-chair were recently announced. The deputy chair is a former CEO of OS. The announcement refers to the commission’s role being to “drive the use of location-linked data more productively, to unlock up to £11 billion of extra value for the economy every year”.

Other documents identify OS and HMLR as some of the main custodians of this data.

IP Draughts wonders whether small, private companies that are already using UK geospatial data may compete with the government’s ambitious plans. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong for a government agency to terminate a commercial licence agreement, or for another government agency to encourage it to do so. IP Draughts doesn’t have enough information (geolegal data?) to form a view on this question. But it is curious that this case is rumbling on at the same time as the Geospatial Commission is being formed.

 

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Filed under Contract drafting, Databases, Intellectual Property

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