Thursday, April 27, 2006

Google Creating A 3D Earth

Last month, Google bought @Last and its powerful 3D modeling software called SketchUp. Today Google announced it was making a version of SketchUp free to download.

The free version of SketchUp allows users to draw 3D objects from "houses, sheds, decks, home additions, woodworking projects - even space ships." What's neat about SketchUp is that Google makes it possible for you to design a 3D version of your house and uphold it into Google Earth. As you can see here, this software has lots of possibilities.

Ars has a good look at this new Google tool, coming to the conclusion that:
Google may have looked at the success of mod communities, mashups, and open APIs, and thought that encouraging a massive influx of modeling help for Google Earth could help drive traffic to the mapping tool. Right now, I don't see any way to make your own 3D version of the street you live on an official feature in the public Earth maps, but something tells me that it's coming sooner or later. What you can do is make your model, enter information about it, and upload it to the 3D center for everyone to use. Mapping data could be added fairly easily, and if you built your model on top of a Google map to begin with, mapping coordinates and the like could be part of the model's metadata already. It would then be a simple matter of approving models for official use.
I agree. Imagine a map of a neighborhood from a street level view that included all the buildings and other landmarks on the street. Some of the current Google Map hacks are pretty cool (there a some links to a few on the right) and mapping the planet in 3D from a street level perspective would require a massive amount of user participation, a la Wikipedia. I don't see any other way to go about it.

The legal issues should be minimal. "Architectural works" qualify for copyright protection under 17 USC 102, but that protection is primarily focused towards the plans and drawings. How far that protection goes to the actual building is a little fuzzy. However, 17 USC 120 provides that "pictorial representations" of a copyrighted building are permitted if the building is located in or is ordinarily visible from a public space. Thus, no one can "prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations" of the building. So, while I can't make a copy of a building's blueprint, I can look at it and take a picture of it, or even draw it, without a problem. That people are going to be making 3D models of the buildings shouldn't fall outside of the words of section 120.

The X-factor may be a trademark claim against anyone modeling a building without permission. To be a valid trademark, a mark must create a separate and distinct commercial impression that identifies the source of the merchandise to the customers. In Rock & Roll Hall of Fame v. Gentile Products, the court said that a photographer who took pictures of the Hall for posters he was making did not violate the Hall's trademark. The decision rested on the notion that taking a picture of the building did not create any confusion among customers, but the court did not make that decision as a matter of law for all like cases: the Hall merely failed to meet the proper evidentiary requirements in that case. It remains to be seen whether another building could prove its case, but the R&R Hall of Fame case sets a high bar in claiming trademark protection for a piece of architecture.

However, in a situation such as on Google Earth where inclusion of these user generated buildings could be used to locate and contact businesses, I could see a court having difficulty in following the R&R Hall of Fame decision without throwing in a whole lot of confusion. Google is not at the point yet of making user created building available on the public Google Earth, but before it goes that route, it's going to have to figure out a way to supervise the system so it doesn't get sued when people start posting unflattering models of businesses (like an Apple Store) or well-known parts of the skyline (who decides who gets to model the new World Trade Center?).

It's a cool (and free) tool however that is probably going to end up with a cult like following. It will also lead to the creation of more content online, making Google all the more relevant in terms of finding stuff. Just like Blogger, by giving people the tools to make more stuff and get it easily online, Google at the same time makes itself all the more necessary in making sense of everything available out there. All I have to say is keep it coming Google.
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