Terms of use: Google Maps & Earth

Use, but don’t change, the maps

Like most genealogists, reader Bill Smith is very conscious of the value of maps in his research. But, it occurred to him, there could be issues with using one particular type of map. He wants to use Google Maps to locate small towns and hamlets where his ancestors have lived and his family members now are living.

“What I would like to know,” he asks, is if there are “legal ramifications of copying these maps from Google Maps to my records and reprinting to have physical copy for a more permanent storage?”

Google.mapsGreat question. And The Legal Genealogist is delighted to see that so many people are now stopping to think about the legal issues before they use something — rather than paying the price afterwards.

The answer is that Bill is perfectly free to use maps from Google Maps (the online map service accessed at https://maps.google.com/) or Google Earth (the software downloadable at http://www.google.com/earth/index.html) for his purposes– as long as he follows some basic rules.

And we can only wish that Google made it a bit easier to find that out.

The path to an answer here starts with the overall terms of use for Google Maps/Earth — and remember, terms of use are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it. These are limits that are different from copyright protection, since the law says what is and isn’t copyrighted and you can own a thing without owning the copyright. So this isn’t copyright law; it’s contract law — you and whoever owns the thing you want to see or copy or use reach a deal.”1

And the overall terms of use here are almost impenetrable; they read as though almost nothing is allowed without a lot of work:

Unless you have received prior written authorization from Google (or, as applicable, from the provider of particular Content), you must not: (a) copy, translate, modify, or make derivative works of the Content or any part thereof; (b) redistribute, sublicense, rent, publish, sell, assign, lease, market, transfer, or otherwise make the Products or Content available to third parties…2

Reading that, most people might come away thinking that even a single image being used in a genealogy report shared with a family member might violate the rules.

Not so, as Google makes clear — but not there.

There’s a whole separate page of Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth. And in the “Frequently Asked Questions” there, you’ll find clearer — and more favorable — answers. That separate page provides the “prior written authorization from Google” that you need for the uses explained there.

That’s where you’ll find, for example, that you’re perfectly free to use individual images from Google Maps/Earth on your website, perhaps to illustrate a blog post just as the image above (of the location of the Allen County Public Library, site of so many of this week’s activities for the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference) is being used here. And in printed projects like genealogy reports, in genealogy presentations, and in more.

But there are two absolutely critical limits:

You can’t change the images in any way:

Any use of Google Maps and Google Earth must reflect how the products and imagery would look online. For example, you are not allowed to make any changes (e.g. delete, blur, etc.) to our products or imagery that would make these items look genuinely different. This includes, but is not limited to, adding clouds or other natural elements, altered user-interfaces, and modifications that do not appear in the actual product.3

You have to attribute the images:

All uses of Google Maps and Google Earth Content must provide attribution to both Google and our data providers. We do not approve of any use of content without proper attribution, in any circumstance. We require attribution when the Content is shown. Requests for exceptions will not be answered or granted.4

I really want to emphasize this, because Google couldn’t make it clearer that attribution is absolutely required. It adds in the “Frequently Asked Questions” that “Without exception, we require attribution when Content is shown. Please do not ask to negotiate this requirement.”5 And it clarifies for Google Earth: “You can personally use an image from the application (for example on your website, on a blog or in a word document) as long as you preserve the copyrights and attributions including the Google logo attribution.”6

There are other limits spelled out on Google’s permissions page — you can’t create your own map by tracing a Google Map, for example. So anybody who wants to use images from Google Maps or Google Earth should read through the limits carefully.

But within those limits, Google says, you can use images in reports, presentations, on the web, in a print project. You can even use them in an advertisement.7

About the only place you can’t use them is “in items for resale (i.e., t-shirts, beach towels, shower curtains, mugs).”8

So go for it, Bill. Just don’t put your ancestral locations on a t-shirt. Or a shower curtain…


  1. Judy G. Russell, “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  2. Google Maps/Earth Additional Terms of Service,” Last Modified: March 1, 2012 (http://www.google.com/intl/en-US/help/terms_maps.html : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  3. “May I alter your imagery for my project?,” Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions (http://www.google.com/permissions/ : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  4. Attribution Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions (http://www.google.com/permissions/ : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  5. “Can you give me permission to show your content without attribution, or put the attribution at the end of my book/movie/TV show?,” Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions (http://www.google.com/permissions/ : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  6. Use of Images,” Google Earth Support (https://support.google.com/earth : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  7. “I’d like to use your maps in an advertisement (print or digital). What do I need to know?,” Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions (http://www.google.com/permissions/ : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  8. Ibid., “I’d like to use your maps on a t-shirt. Can I?”
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23 Responses to Terms of use: Google Maps & Earth

  1. Great article as usual. One question, when it comes to altering. I’ve been known to put an arrow on top of the image from google maps. Is that considered altering? I know they say no clouds. Anyway, great information that a lot of us will be able to use.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Anne, it’s literally inconceivable to me that that would be considered “altering” the image — you’re just highlighting something by pointing to it, and just as Google Earth has built-in placemarks, polygons and overlays to focus on something, an arrow just does the same thing. Now maybe Google would see it differently — but I can’t imagine that it would.

  2. Thanks Judy. That is what I would think as well. But I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who does that or had the question. Thanks for the article.

  3. Scott in Ztexas says:

    If you use mapping photos from US govt satellites they should be free from all copyright concerns as they are in the public domain

  4. Kate Eakman says:

    Judy, I appreciate your willingness and ability to explain these things to the rest of us. Thank you!

    Just to be clear, may I use an image of a Google map (with the necessary attributions) in a report that I prepare for a client who has paid me for the said report? I am not selling the image, I am merely using it to illustrate a location, etc. so it would seem to me that I would be safe to do so, but I do NOT want to get cross-wise of Google.


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Kate, the permission page expressly says: “You may use our maps in internal reports, presentations, proposals, and other related professional documents. We request you still retain attribution to both Google and our data providers.” A client report, it seems to me, is certainly a “related professional document” and far more private than a presentation or a proposal. Moreover, you can even use the maps in advertising: “No explicit permission is required for your ad project.” Given those permissions, it’s inconceivable to me that using it the way you suggest in a client report would be anything other than just dandy by Google.

  5. Kate Eakman says:

    Thanks Judy! (and I like the image of some executive at Google saying “That’s just dandy”!)

  6. Judy Fox says:

    It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? I thought I could modify a Google map and use that in my blog. Then, thanks to you, I took the time to read their terms of use, and “Surprise”: Copy, don’t modify the map. What it means to me is that I have to take the time to learn to use all their mapmaking tools! Thanks, Judy.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I suspect their biggest concern is people “modifying” the copyright and credit information off the images, Judy! So a “don’t modify at all” rule sure solves that.

  7. Jana Last says:

    Thank you for this informative blog post! I want you to know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/08/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-august-23.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. Pingback: Friday Finds – 09/06/13

  9. Sheila says:

    Thanks so much for interpreting the legal-ese for us non-lawyer types! So… if I use images from Google Maps Street View to illustrate a book about historic houses, to show what they look like “today” — as long as I attribute “All photos courtesy of Google” is that sufficient? Or should each photo carry a credit line that says: “Photo credit: Google Maps Street View”– is that better?

    And once attribution is clear, can my local historic society then sell printed copies of the book to cover printing cost?


  10. diego m. alfonso says:

    Thank you so much for your translation of the legal ramifications of using Google Maps.
    I am producing flight training instructional videos for sale. I would like to use three map pictures from Google Maps for the project. the maps are of an airport. I want reflect the traffic pattern for landing in the form of a rectangle super imposed on the map. is that allowed by Google.

    I really appreciate your time and thank you in advance for it.
    Diego M. Alfonso

  11. Ray says:

    I have emailed them this specific request and received no answer, so I’ll ask it here. Even following all the required attributions, can I use three copied maps in an eBook for sale to illustrate the location where included photographs were taken? An advertisement is a commercial endeavor, as is a movie or television, but then so is a mug and a beach towel. They discuss print projects, but not eBooks, and they don’t specify whether for sale or not – at least not that I could find. I can apparently download a Widget that will allow me to launch Google Maps from within my book, and take the reader to the specific map I want as well. Color me confused! Thank you.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ray, the only folks who can tell you what Google means when it says commercial use are the folks at Google. I wish I could do better, but it’s their circus, their monkeys, and the only information you can rely on to make a business decision has to come from them.

  12. Im a football historian author. I have created a vast database on my computer of Google Earth locations where football grounds USED TO exists. I mark the exact spot using Google tools to produce a rectangle overlaid so people can see where they used to be and what’s there now.
    Can I use perhaps ten such images in my next 300 page book, giving all and any accreditation that Google requires ?

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