The World Wide Web of Licensing Map Data

Oct 1, 2007 Michael Wurzer

There are two primary companies that create street map data: NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas. The traditional focus of both of these companies has been in-car navigation. However, more recently, both companies have liberally licensed their data to web mapping portals like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, MapQuest/AOL, etc. If you go to any of those sites and look at the bottom of the maps, there almost always will be a copyright attribution to one or the other of these companies.

What’s most interesting today, however, is that these web portals are turning around and making the street maps available to any public web site (not private ones, like MLS systems) for free. In other words, when NAVTEQ or TeleAtlas licenses their data to Google, they also effectively are licensing it to all of Google’s customers and the web sites they power, such as Trulia, RE/MAX, etc., for free. (Well, actually, RE/MAX, through eNeighorhoods, is listed as an enterprise customer for Google, so maybe they are paying, but that would be strange since Google’s API is free for public sites like RE/MAX’s.) Anyway, I can hardly imagine what Google must have to pay NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas for this nearly unlimited extension to their license.

This story gets even more interesting now with devices like the iPhone or the Treo, which have the Google maps application installed, which comes awfully close to a navigation system. The only thing missing is making the Google maps application location aware, which can’t be far aware given that most of the phones have GPSs built in for 911 emergency purposes. Once Google maps is location aware, haven’t they completely cannibalized the traditional space of NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas?

The license agreements these companies have with Google, Yahoo!, etc., undoubtedly already prevent Google from using the map data for location aware directions, and these agreements are likely to get even stricter for NAVTEQ now that Nokia has purchased them. This acquisition may not have hit the radar of everyone in the real estate business yet, but, trust me, this one is going to have a big impact on real estate practitioners, which can really benefit from wireless systems, including mapping.

Also, what will Nokia’s purchase do to NAVTEQ’s long-term relationship with Google and their public API? Will Google be compelled to purchase TeleAtlas to protect themselves? Undoubtedly a good part of NAVTEQ’s revenue was in their deal with Google, which had to pay a lot of money to NAVTEQ, but Nokia may be more inclined to take a different direction than the free APIs allow. All I can say is that I’m glad we aren’t relying on any free API’s for our products, because I’d hate to be betting my business on their long-term continued availability when “Google may modify the Terms of Use at any time with or without notice”.

Update:  Reading O’Reilly’s post about this same topic, I’m reminded that TeleAtlas was bought by Tom-Tom, another hardware manufacturer (GPS instead of phones).    (The NAVTEQ deal caught my attention more, because we license NAVTEQ data for use in our MLS software.)  Wow, that the two primary sources of street mapping data are now owned by companies with interests in conflict with Google and others interested in local search bodes for some very interesting negotiations down the road.   The GPS and web world are being smashed (not just mashed) together, and the street map data stands between.