Openstreetmap: using the free world map correctly


The Wikipedia-style maps of Openstreetmap can be used without the threat of warnings or other restrictions. For example, for directions on a website or in printed materials. How to do it and what to consider?

The free world map Openstreetmap has been online for ten years now and is created and maintained by countless volunteers. Remarkable about it: Today it has partly more exact data than some commercial map services. While many such services can also be used for free to some extent, there are still some good reasons to use free maps.

If you want to use maps of commercial services as images, for example in print or in videos, you can easily reach the limits of what many of the providers allow. With free maps, this is also clearly allowed, even the redesign and editing of the underlying data is possible. For some website operators it might also be important that no user data is passed on to Google& Co. flow, if you embed a section on your own website.

The basic idea behind Openstreetmap can be summarized in two sentences.

  • You can use Openstreetmap without asking if you mention the source and how you are allowed to use it.
  • Whoever edits the data of Openstreetmap has to give back improvements to the community of all contributors.

How to use Openstreetmap?

This basic idea sounds simple, but as always, it can get more complicated in the details. To understand how to use Openstreetmap properly, it is helpful to have an idea of the legal model behind the free world map.

Facts, databases and maps

Pure facts like the name of a street or the location of a lake are not protected by copyright or similar rights in the first place. Anyone can use it in any way they want. However, if a lot of such information is collected, this collection may enjoy its own legal protection, as a database, and in the case of a creative work, also as a so-called database work.

Database protection alone largely gives the producer the right to decide whether and how others may use the database – or "substantial parts" of it, as it is called in copyright law. This is where free licenses and open data come into play.

Take: open data

The database compiled by the contributors of Openstreetmap is licensed under the "Open Database License" (ODbL). This license basically states that you can use the data in any way you want, even for commercial purposes, if you name the community of Openstreetmap contributors and cite or link to the license. The general mention "(c) Openstreetmap contributors" is sufficient, concrete names do not have to be mentioned, which would be difficult given the number of contributors.

It also stipulates: Anyone who edits and publishes the data must make the changes available to everyone under the same terms as the original. This condition is called "Share-Alike" and is similarly known from other free licenses for software or content.

Create: maps

To be distinguished from the data behind Openstreetmap are the map representations that are generated from it. The licenses published on or are only two of many possible representations that can be produced with the data. Such representations can be protected by copyright, independent of the underlying database. However, they are often also released under free licenses such as Creative Commons.

Graphics: Data and maps from Openstreetmap. (Icons by The Noun Project/, Nathan Driskell (CC BY)

Graphic: Data and maps from Openstreetmap. (Icons: The Noun Project/, Nathan Driskell, CC BY)

Work with data: Pass-on condition may apply

How to use Openstreetmap correctly depends in detail on the individual case. However, there are often misunderstandings about the condition to return changes or improvements to the data to the community ("Share-Alike"). Here, the Open Database license states that this condition applies whenever one uses the Openstreetmap data publicly in a new, "derived" database.

The idea here is that if someone uses the data and, for example, also owns the data of all restaurants that are not yet listed on Openstreetmap, the community should benefit from that as well. However, if a developer uses different data sources only unconnected next to each other, the condition can possibly be disregarded, because then it does not apply. In addition to the license itself, the "Community Guidelines" published by the Openstreetmap Foundation also provide orientation here.

At least for the ways of using openstreetmap discussed here – when including map excerpts, as a printout – the matter is simpler. Here it is important how the respective map representations may be used; in the Openstreetmap context often called "tiles". The license for the data usually comes into play here at most insofar as a reference to Openstreetmap as the data source and the ODbL license may be necessary.

Include map sections on website

For a long time, the integration of maps was not easy, but today the website openstreetmap already offers the possibility to use maps from different a simple way to embed a map section on a website. The "Share" button provides an embed code; a location can be marked for a map or directions sketch.

The map selected in the default view is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike (CC BY-SA) license. If you embed an excerpt via the "Share" button, you will find a reference to Openstreetmap as source and a link to the license page at the bottom ( The Openstreetmap community considers this to be sufficient, so that the conditions of the Creative Commons as well as the Open Database license are already fulfilled for the standard map.

The European Court of Justice has also ruled in 2014 that the embedding of foreign sources normally does not interfere with copyrights, so legally speaking it does not need to be allowed extra. What this means for representations of map services, which are "redrawn" by the map server each time they are accessed, remains to be seen. In any case, one is on the safe side if one pays attention to an appropriate reference and the link when embedding the map.

Screenshot: Embed map section via

Screenshot: Embed city map via

If one wants other map representations than the standard variant of, the menu item "Layers" provides, among others, a map for bicycles, a map for public transport and a map made for humanitarian aid. When embedding, license details are also added for these maps.

Watch for clues in your own variations

If you want to further customize the image or add more elements, you can use tools like Openlayers and Leaflet. Commercial services like Mapsmarker or Mapbox are also based on Openstreetmap; the Openstreetmap wiki lists many more services. Here you should also keep in mind the recommendations of Openstreetmap. That means for example: put a reference to openstreetmap at the edge of the picture and point to the license page ( if the tools don’t do it already.

If you use foreign map images or combine them with other data sources, you can get a lot of clues. This shows for example the "open regional map Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania". It combines map data from Openstreetmap with official sources. The city of Rostock has placed the resulting images under the Creative Commons "Attribution" license. In the web map there are therefore several references and links to sources, licenses and map image.

Screenshot: Notes on map data and image at orka-mv.en

Using map sections in print

If you want to use Openstreetmap in print and you are technically experienced, you can create your own maps from the raw data here. The easier variant is to work with already existing representations. Here openstreetmap offers an export as a PDF file or as a picture. In addition, there are some tools that can help to get the cards into a format suitable for printing.

Even if clickable links are not possible in print, one should at least make sure that references to the data source, representation and license are given and add if necessary. These requirements apply as soon as you want to use the end product not only privately. There are no fixed rules for how to implement the instructions. It always depends on the final product and one meets many variants.

A good example is, for example, a cycling and hiking map for the community of Gutau in Austria. On the reverse side there is a reference to the data source, to own additions, the license of the map display and two web addresses. In addition, the map legend can be used for hints, for example.


Photos (excerpts): cycling and hiking map by Holger Schoner, CC BY-SA

Photos (excerpts): Cycling and walking map by Holger Schoner, CC BY-SA

Not only for maps on paper, openstreetmap can also be used in many other ways, as for example the advertisement on a streetcar in Toronto shows. The source reference here is quite short and without indication of the license, but it is placed sensibly right next to the entrance to the car.

Streetcar with Openstreetmap map, photo: Rw, CC BY-SA

Streetcar with Openstreetmap map, photo: Rw, CC BY-SA

If you give a not one hundred percent correct information, you surely don’t have to fear to be warned immediately. But if you pay attention to this, not least you show respect for what the many helpers of the free world map have done.

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