OpenStreetMap looks to relocate to EU due to Brexit limitations

OpenStreetMap, the Wikipedia-for-maps organisation that seeks to create a free and open-source map of the globe, is considering relocating to the EU, almost 20 years after it was founded in the UK by the British entrepreneur Steve Coast.

OpenStreetMap Foundation, which was formally registered in 2006, two years after the project began, is a limited company registered in England and Wales. Following Brexit, the organisation says the lack of agreement between the UK and EU could render its continued operation in Britain untenable.

“There is not one reason for moving, but a multitude of paper cuts, most of which have been triggered or amplified by Brexit,” Guillaume Rischard, the organisation’s treasurer, told members of the foundation in an email sent earlier this month.

One “important reason”, Rischard said, was the failure of the UK and EU to agree on mutual recognition of database rights. While both have an agreement to recognise copyright protections, that only covers work which is creative in nature.

Maps, as a simple factual representation of the world, are not covered by copyright in the same way, but until Brexit were covered by an EU-wide agreement that protected databases where there had been “a substantial investment in obtaining, verifying or presenting the data”. But since Brexit, any database made on or after 1 January 2021 in the UK will not be protected in the EU, and vice versa.

Other concerns Rischard listed include the increasing complexity and cost of “banking, finance and using PayPal in the UK”, the inability for the organisation to secure charitable status, and the loss of .eu domains.

The increased importance of the EU in matters of tech regulation also played a role: “We could more effectively lobby the EU [and] EU governments and have more of an impact, especially in countries where there is no local chapter,” Rischard wrote.

The move may still not happen if the foundation can’t find a suitable country to relocate to. Ireland is out, because of a requirement for directors to be residents; France too, because of the difficulty in guaranteeing English-language services. “The negative side is that it would mean a lot of work, and cost time and money,” Rischard added.

In just a few years, OpenStreetMap has succeeded in producing highly detailed maps that rival those created by national bodies and big tech companies such as Google and Nokia. A large network of volunteers combines remote work, such as tracing satellite imagery to update natural features, with on-the-ground expertise, touring city centres to ensure that shops, restaurants and offices are correctly recorded.

The organisation’s maps are used by companies including Apple, Microsoft and Uber, and the increasing reliance of some of the world’s largest companies on the open-source map has sparked controversy within the community: by 2020, for instance, Apple alone had contributed more than 13m edits to the atlas, leading some to worry that a shift in focus could prevent it from achieving its original goal of providing maps to underserved communities.

The OpenStreetMap Foundation did not reply to a request for comment.

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