Maintenance and future of the Open Data Commons licences



I’m asking this question here as I wasn’t sure whether there was a better forum. Apologies if the question should be directed elsewhere.

At the time that the Open Data Commons licences were defined there were few (or perhaps no) options for publishing open data under a licence that addressed database rights. ODbL and other licences therefore filled a specific niche in the community.

However since their release the CC 4.0 licences have been extended to include database rights, making them suitable for publishing open data. This means that publishers can use consistent, and often the same, licences to publish both open data and other openly licensed content. The open data institute here in the UK recommends use of the CC licences for exactly this reason.

With this in mind I’m wondering about the current state and the future of the open data commons licences. Should they be deprecated or retired?

Licence proliferation doesn’t help the community. While this isn’t strictly proliferation (the licences already exist), they present another option for people to consider and navigate. There may be reasons to encourage use of other licences, e.g. steering potential new publishers towards the CC licence suite rather than the open data commons licences.

I think it would be useful to get an update and a public statement from OKF about the state of the licences. For example, are they actively maintained? Are there any potential impacts on the licences from forthcoming changes and legislation in the EU?

In short I’m wondering about the current role of these licences in the open data ecosystem, and whether they have served their purpose?

For example why would someone now choose these licences over their CC alternatives?



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Hi Leigh,

Thanks for raising this. This is a really great question worth addressing, and we will definitely bring some clarity here. This isn’t “official”, but we hope to start working toward an answer soon.

This, by the way, is the ideal forum for the question. Hopefully we can get more input here from data publishers (including, say, anyone from OpenStreetMap, an early adopter of the ODC licenses).


Creative Commons: What is the difference between the Open Data Commons licenses and the CC 4.0 licenses?


Hi Leigh, I can respond on a couple of points here:

  • There are still some differences between the ODbL and e.g. CC-By-SA. This differences are significant to some major users e.g. OSM (cf. produced works)
  • It would be very unlikely that the license would get deprecated or removed whilst there are major user communities - the open data commons licenses are heavily driven by those user communities
  • I certainly think compatibility is important - and this was something we sought to engage with CC about heavily from 2007-2010. If compatibility is a concern I would suggest revisiting this - more likely than deprecation or removal.
  • We (and I personally) have kept an eye on the licenses and we have had input from lawyers. I would definitely be open to doing a round of maintenance if there were clear areas where improvements or changes were needed. In general, this is something you want to do rarely (cf GPLv3 efforts etc).

As a general point, I would note the significant differences between data and content – similar to differences between code and content (which meant that CC licenses did not replace MIT or GPL). I haven’t dug in recently in depth on this but it is important (e.g. the distinction around produced works etc).

Finally, and this is for my part, i think there continues to be an issue about the confusion around openness generated by the generic CC branding. People see CC licenses as “suite” and often don’t differentiate between licenses that are open and those that are not. I personally think this is a problem – it clearly leads to confusion amongst users who see as CC licenses as all roughly the same. You can read more about this at (and e.g.


Leigh you’ve got a fantastic opportunity to discuss this subject in person this April in Toronto


Weighing in quickly from the OSM side here.

I don’t believe we are anywhere near a situation were it could be said that we are churning licence updates.

It is rather the other way around, for the major part of the last 5 years the ODC licences have been considered fully and truly orphaned. We’ve been discussing CC BY 4.0 compatibility with the ODbL with CC over the last couple of weeks and while we didn’t dwell long on the subject, the general consensus was that the ODC licences are dead and the the OKFN doesn’t have the slightest interest in them at all (which is nicely illustrated by the fact that it is the OSMF discussing the issues with CC, not the OKFN).

That is a problem for us: on the one hand there are a small number of wording/clarification issues with the ODbL 1.0 that should be addressed, on the other hand, and more important, the perception that the ODC licences are dead is pushing licensors to, IMHO, unsuitable for data, solutions. Custom licences and CC BY / CC BY-SA variants by the dozen… Further there have been rumours of various initiatives to create new data licences including an ODbL 2.0 in France, which will only make fragmentation even worse. But given the current vacuum this is not a surprise.



@SimonPoole I’m sorry to hear that. I had conversations with OSM working group on this a couple of years ago including chats about talking with NYU legal group and have not heard anything since. If there are things that need to be worked on it would be great to hear it and I invite them to get in touch.

I think there is something of a chicken-and-egg issue: whilst no-one is requesting action on the licenses nothing will happen – in the general sense of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I also would like to emphasize an important point about how Open Data Commons works:

Open Data Commons was always intended to be a community driven project living at Open Knowledge – not run by Open Knowledge. Its work should be driven by the community, and based on contributions and support from the community. For example, the original legal work was contributed pro-bono by Jordan Hatcher, myself and others including significant input from OSM and its legal team. I personally think this is a healthy situation.

At the same time, it does mean that significant user communities would need to support the initiative at key points: for example in providing or sponsoring legal input. I would also suggest that putting in place some kind of informal board / advisory board as per the Open Definition would be a good idea. It is something I have discussed with a few people including OSM when I talked with them a couple of years ago.

. Further there have been rumours of various initiatives to create new data licences including an ODbL 2.0 in France, which will only make fragmentation even worse.

Re the French license situation: as you may know, we’ve always stated that ODbL licenses should NOT be modded for country versions and will never be officially endorsed - but obviously we can’t do anything if people go off and make their own unofficially …


Hi Rufus (& others).

Thanks for the initial feedback. I was hoping this would spark some productive comments and feedback.

I understand that deprecating a licence that is in use would be an unusual step, but I deliberately proposed that to ensure we’re thinking about all possible options. I would rather get some clarity around the role of the ODbL in the broader open data commons than force people in one direction or another.

I agree with your later comment that the community does need to raise issues and concerns. And also that there ought to be some support/steering around the ODbL licences. It’s the lack of activity and apparent direction which prompted my email.

I’m not qualified to suggest whether there are legal reasons to update or review the licences, but I do note that there is a current EU consultation which does touch on data rights:

Regarding the broader CC suite, I agree that its important to clarify which licences count as open and which don’t. I’ve recently worked with the ODI on some guidance on this: But I think offering people options is better than forcing a particular viewpoint. I would rather see people becoming more “open” and works not being shared at all.

Similarly though, I’ve seen concerns expressed about the ODbL, which I’m not sure I’ve seen addressed (but this might be down to my missing the relevant debates), e.g. some of the concerns raised here:

In the shorter term I’d suggest two useful steps that could happen around ODbL:

  1. clarifying its compatibility with CC licences.
    If it possible to switch between different licences, as we can with OGL and CC-BY, then this achieves several goals:
  • clarifies that the licences have the same intent and standing
  • that users can freely mix together works using the different licences
  • provides a means for current users of either licence to switch if they choose.
  1. clearly documenting where and how ODbL is a better choice than alternatives
    For example, can you provide pointers to the produced work issue? How is this requirement not covered by the CC licences?

This clarity would be useful to help people make decisions and might also promote further convergence between the CC and ODC licences.

But, thinking broader about what would benefit the open data community more broadly, might it not be more productive to work directly with Creative Commons to ensure that any perceived shortcoming with their licences w.r.t data are addressed? The CC licences already seem actively supported, have recognition and are translated into multiple languages.

Do we need separate strands of activity around licensing in the commons?




@rufuspollock well “a couple of years back” is pre-OSM licence change or put differently half a decade ago. While I understand that ODC/OKFN may not have the means to actively work on the licences themselves, without a certain amount of active stewardship nothing will change the perception that we are discussing abandonware here.


@Idodds to clarify: the ODbL is the only licence of the ODC suite that has got any noticeable traction. However in certain ways it is modelled around the specific needs of OSM at the time which include share-alike provisions if you are modifying the the data. I don’t believe we would want our choice of the ODbL for very specific reasons to be taken as recommending the ODbL as the go to data licence in general.

Clearly nobody is looking for general interoperability of ODbL and CC BY because of share alike provisions in the ODbL this simply will not be possible, the relevant ODC licence should likely be ODC By.

Unluckily ODC-By has not seen a lot of uptake even though it is IMHO definitely a better choice as a data licence than CC BY, not to mention the endless non-open variants of CC BY, custom and others. But licence niggling aside, I believe we in general should be calling a spade a spade and calling out those licensors that are calling their datasets open when they really are not which overall would be more important.


Hi Simon,

Yes ODC-By does seem to be rarely used. I was focusing on ODbL here because its more prominent but the same general issues apply.

To clarify, I was suggesting, that ODbL might be compatible with CC-BY-SA. As you say the basic permissions and restrictions are aligned in principle. But whether there are legal issues, e.g. due to reliance on different aspects of the law (contract vs copyright), I’m not qualified to judge.

If there are ongoing discussions around licensing in OSM it would be useful to surface them.




While similar in principle, there are a lot of differences in practice.

Restricting ourselves to CC BY-SA 4.0 (how and if earlier versions apply to databases is one of the larger mysteries of the universe :-)), it is conceivable that ODbL licensed data could be licensed on CC BY-SA 4.0 terms without larger conflicts, the other way around will not work. The ODbL as already said, has share-alike provisions that affect distribution and modification of the data(base), but not on derived works that are typically not databases, for example maps (this is the “Produced Work” problem that was referred to). Outside of an attribution requirement there are no restrictions on how you can distribute a “Produced Work”. CC BY-SA 4,0 however would extend SA and other restrictions (for example no DRM, which applies to CC BY too) to such derivatives.

There are always licensing discussions in OSM :-). They typically surface on the legal-talk mailing list or in the minutes of our Licensing/Legal Working .



I’m not sure i understand. A couple of years back (i.e. 2014/2015) is well post the OSM license change to ODbL …


Whilst OSM was a very important stakeholder, the overall formulation of the ODbL was not specifically driven by OSM concerns. Jordan had already drafted the main parts of the ODbL and the PDDL before we had extensive discussions with OSM and we always planned a share-alike (GPL-like) database license – in fact, it was probably the most important one in our opinion.

The Produced Work provision was one area where the OSM use cases were very important. However, they turn out to also be generally applicable and important. For example, imagine I write a paper using data from an ODbL-licensed database (or more likely using a database i’ve built that builds on an ODbL database). I don’t want to have my paper automatically required to be openly licensed just because i used data to make the paper (or make graphs in it).


@ldodds would be good to have any specific concerns you have seen flagged. We did produce an extensive FAQ for the ODbL where we addressed points people had raised.

Re the science commons link

This ultimately is not a critique of the ODbL - it was critique of all non-public domain data "licenses"and would apply equally to using CC By-SA for databases.

John Wilbanks (then head of Science Commons) wrote this as part of the debate we had about data licensing (there are many other threads and a reply on this that I can dig out). He was strongly of the view that open for data should be PD-only. We respectively disagreed :wink:


@rufuspollock - Maybe it’s time to write a blog post about this thread? I think that would be useful for the community. @ldodds, what do you think about that?


Hi Mor,

Sorry for the slow response. Yes, I think a blog post to spur some wider discussion is a great idea. Let me know if I can help!




My understanding is that your paper isn’t an adapted work. You’re not republishing the ODbL licenced dataset, or a substantial portion of it, just using it in your analysis. Therefore you only need to attribute the data you’re using. It’s the essentially the same situation as including a CC licenced image in a document. I just attribute it, I don’t have to licence my whole document openly. Otherwise all open licences would effectively have a share-a-like provision.

These issues around how you comply with licences, and the different scenarios that apply are important to highlight. OSM have produced some great guidance that helps users understand what is permitted.

I guess what I’m looking for in the context of this discussion, is how ODbL supports “Produced Works” and delivers necessarily features for both publishers and reusers in a way that the CC licences don’t?

Are there concrete legal provisions or flexibility that the licence provides that would make it a better choice in some situations? If there are then I’m not sure they’re well communicated at the moment.




This is a healthy sounding arrangement. I see there exists an ODC Advisory Council. Has its role in maintaining the ODC licenses and related documentation been formalized like the Open Definition AC’s maintenance of the OD?

Also, should there be an ODC category in this forum?


Unluckily things are not quite that simple, with different flavours, depending on CC variant and version. For example the CC BY * anti-DRM provision would clearly effect distribution of a collective work (up to version 3.0). The 4.0 versions do not define or reference that construct any more, but CC does indicate in their FAQ that it is intended to work the same.

As to the guidance we have produced, you do need to put it in to a context of a continuously changing database of geo-information, some of our statements would likely be different if it was say a slowly revised catalogue of art work or whatever.


Just saying I’ve just checked in this thread - in the midst of travelling atm.

:thumbsup: on @mlinksva comments. There is an advisory council - though it could definitely get more active again. The main thing there would be to have concrete issues to consider: e.g. we should change X or Y in the license. (For example, there was some discussion initiated by Mapbox a few years ago within OSM and ODC re the form of the share-alike clauses).

I think @Mor and @ldodds suggestion of a summary post is also a good idea. I’ll be a bit stacked until end of Feb - and then more available.