Images courtesy of uGRIDD,

In a digital age when projects routinely generate vast amounts of data that can be readily repurposed, the question of who owns the data becomes increasingly important.

We may not necessarily be thinking about data ownership when we prepare our survey contracts, but one way or another it is addressed. Typically--and maybe by default--survey contracts assign virtually all ownership rights to clients. However, we should think carefully about this matter, especially in a digital age when projects routinely generate vast amounts of data that can be readily repurposed. Data is our primary product, and it’s valuable!

Survey data can be divided into three components.

  • The deliverable: This is what the client explicitly contracts for, and our contracts always assign rights to at least the deliverable. For instance, if we are hired to produce a topographic map of a parcel, we are, at minimum, required to hand over a paper map showing features and contours. But the nature of the deliverable can be defined in the contract. In the case of a topographic map, if the deliverable is defined as a paper map, we aren’t required to hand over digital files. If we are required, by contract, to hand over digital files, we may be able to restrict the required deliverable to parcel boundaries while keeping data that overlaps defined boundaries--neighboring parcels, for example--under our control.
  • Data gathered during the course of work: As described above, depending on the way we define deliverables, we may or may not have to hand over all the data generated during project work. And, also depending on contract language, we may or may not retain the right to reuse all the data generated. That is, after handing over a topographic map and its associated data we are either able to reuse that data ourselves in future projects … or not.
  • Knowledge and experience gained during the course of work: Suppose we uncover a section corner while performing a topographic survey, and we record its position. We may or may not show it on our map, we may or may not turn over georeferenced coordinates, and we may or may not retain the right to reuse those coordinates in future work. But we will always have an advantage over other surveyors who haven’t been to this particular section corner. And, if we have found a lot of section corners in a particular region, we will be much better at that task than surveyors with less local experience--and of course, we rely on our experience as a competitive advantage. This kind of data can never be assigned to others or taken away from us by contract. However, as described below, our use of this type of data can be limited by contract.
Images courtesy of uGRIDD,

In practice, of course, surveyors rarely address data ownership in such detail, and we assume that we can reuse data for future projects, marketing and other purposes. But some industries and professions do routinely address data rights in contracts, and it’s not hard to imagine the practice influencing surveying.

Suppose, for example, that a movie company asks a surveyor to produce a point cloud of a building interior for use in creating a virtual set. Of course the company will ask for all data rights, and of course it will restrict reuse of the data for many reasons, including public relations and security. It may even require a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that prohibits the surveyor from speaking about the work or using it in marketing materials. It will, in other words, explicitly address all three of the data components I’ve identified.

As we move into laser scanning and other data-intensive survey practices, we will have to think more about the value of data and the importance of good contract language.

Start with this idea: Before a contract is signed, all of the data types described above belong to the surveyor. After the contract is signed, rights to some or all of the data generated will belong to the client. In fact, it’s probably best to think of even hard copy deliverables as a form of usage right, with the exact nature of that right defined by contract.

Given the changing nature of our profession and the increasing value of digital data, survey associations could play a key role in addressing the matter. These groups could even work with lawyers to prepare new contract templates that fairly allocate rights to data reuse.

We are working in a new and exciting age of surveying. Digital data continues to surprise us with its ability to generate unexpected value. The way we think about survey data has to adjust to this new reality.