Intellectual Property RightsUnderstanding the Copyrightability of Maps in India

January 2, 20230


Maps are one of the underlying essentials in our day-to-day lives. With the digitization of almost every aspect of our daily lives, even maps, like everything else, are readily accessible on our phone or laptop screens. The crux of maps; be it on paper or in an application on our devices, provides accurate geographical information.

As a result, the accuracy of maps is of particular concern and often requires navigating legal and regulatory paths to avoid disputes and controversy.

The mapping sector in India is largely influenced by the Government entities such as the Survey of India (“SOI”). However, in the recent past, several private entities have also penetrated into the mapping and geospatial sector in India, thereby creating a diversified market.

In light of the above, it is important to understand the ownership of such maps. For example, as per the National Map Policy, 2005 (“NMP”) and detailed guidelines (“Guidelines”) issued by the SOI, the SOI owns the copyright to both digital and analog maps published by the SOI. Therefore, any unauthorized usage or duplication of such maps would amount to copyright infringement under the Copyright Act, 1957 (“the Act”).


In general, mapping in India involves two separate subjects for copyright protection:

1. the maps themselves and;

2. the geospatial datasets used to create them.

As per Section 2(c) of the Act, maps as copyrightable. Geospatial data is large amounts of location data collected through remote sensing, radar, satellite, and drone imagery, or generated by navigation systems, social media applications that track location by default, customer information entered into radio-cab and food delivery apps, traffic cameras, and surveillance systems, among other things.

Such information falls widely under the purview of ‘compilations’ or ‘databases,’ which are recognised as literary work under Section 2(o) of the Act. However, to enjoy copyright protection, such compilations or databases must show originality.

Further, even if a dataset as a whole is found to be original, other parties are not barred from copying its components or non-original subsets, regardless of the expertise and labour required to get it or the competitive advantage it provides. Geospatial data may be better secured under a sui generis database protection law, similar to the European Union’s Directive 96/6/EC, which provides legal protection to databases.

The limited protection afforded by copyright to geospatial data is also subject to fair dealing exceptions, which have been inconsistently applied in India. It is difficult to predict how the Courts will apply the copyright exceptions designed for geospatial data, which can be used in a variety of industries ranging from real-world simulations in video games to aviation training.


Since the implementation of stringent mapping regulations, multiple situations have occurred in which agencies have faced legal action for violating such policies. These events were recently brought to light when the selling of Eicher’s CD-Roms of Delhi Guide Maps was stopped.

Eicher is one of the oldest private mapping industry players, producing city and road maps for India in the private sector for public distribution. Despite previously facing a ban, it is now one of the few companies that can use SOI data for value addition. It currently collaborates with SOI, frequently launching items in a ‘strategic alliance’ with them.

Copyright violation

Violating SOI’s copyright by releasing its maps without authorisation, adequate permission, and credit may also result in offence of copyright infringement. All maps published by the SOI are owned by the Government of India, and they are not allowed to be copied or used as a foundation by publishers without the consent of the Surveyor General of India. Unauthorised reproduction of SOI maps may result in imprisonment for 6 (six) months to 3 (three) years, and with a fine.

At the present, publishing maps is not a straightforward road and is subject to several restrictions and regulations by the SOI. With the introduction of the Guidelines for acquiring and producing Geospatial Data and Geospatial Data Services including Maps by the Department of Science and Technology (“DST Guidelines”), the Indian private entities in the mapping and geospatial sector has received certain relaxations. However, whether such liberalization measures would be practised in the industry, is still uncertain.

Hence, any private entity publishing maps, should take optimum care and safeguarding measures while publishing such maps or claiming ownership of such maps, in order to prevent any potential legal dispute with Government entities like the SOI.


In the Google Mapathon Case, in 2014, the CBI launched an investigation regarding Google Maps’ alleged irregularities in Mapathon 2013. Google was accused of organising the Mapping competition without the necessary Government licences, which violated the SOI’s regulations and the NMP.  After a few years, the CBI allegedly dropped the investigation due to a “lack of adequate evidence to verify the charges.” Later on, the Delhi High Court directed the Government to look into the matter of Google Maps depicting Indian military facilities, nuclear power plants, and other sensitive regions.

In another landmark case of J. Mohanraj v. the Secretary to the Government, Writ Petition No.29713 of 2008,  the Madras High Court has rejected the petition filed in the public interest requesting a “complete or partial ban” on Google Earth. The Bench comprising of Hon’ble Justice S. J. Mukhopadhaya and Hon’ble Justice V Dhanapalan disposed of the petition and stated that the Court or the judiciary is not an expert body and that the Petitioner should make an application before an appropriate forum for remedy.  Therefore, the judicial stand in such matters is often neutral considering understanding mapping and geospatial data require expert knowledge and understanding of the field.


Maps are construed as sensitive data, bearing grave implications if subject to unauthorized usage, duplication, or circulation. Maps are often intertwined with national security and public interest, thereby making its publication a pivotal aspect.

Any entity or individual engaged in the business of mapping and publication of maps should understand the foregoing before moving forward with the publication and claiming ownership of such maps.

The mapping and the geospatial sector are largely regulated by several laws, rules, and regulations. Therefore, proprietors should also ensure compliance with such legislations as and where required, and also safeguard one’s innovation or literary work under the Act.

– Team AMLEGALS assisted by Mr. Vinay Sachdev (Intern)

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