Google Ocean reveals the terrain hidden beneath the waves. Credit: Google

Fly to coordinates N0 E94.75 in Google Ocean, the visualization program launched this month that renders marine environments in unprecedented detail, and you'll see something that's definitely not in the real ocean: the initials 'DTS/SIO'. This is the mark of geophysicist David T. Sandwell of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, part of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), who uses the initials here and elsewhere to mark vast areas of the ocean that remain uncharted.

The initials are also a reminder of the people and institutions behind the data — and how they can lose out on financial gain as public assets enter the corporate world. More than a decade ago, Sandwell and Walter Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Maryland, developed a way to convert gravity and ocean-depth data from satellite missions and research cruises into a bathymetric map of the sea floor. Google Ocean incorporates that method — which Sandwell copyrighted for UCSD — without compensation.

Many researchers have praised Google's visualizations such as Google Earth and Google Mars. "Scientists want to see their data published and used by the world," says Steve Miller, project manager for Google Ocean at the California-based company headquartered in Mountain View. The programs incorporate public-domain data from non-profit organizations and agencies such as NASA.

The university isn't doing squat.

But some question whether institutions — whose researchers often develop sophisticated ways of using such data — are losing out. "The marketplace is taking the technology and the university isn't doing squat," says Gideon Markman, a management scholar at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Jeff Chester, a social scientist who directs the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington DC, goes further: "In this case, it looks like the university was digitally fleeced."

Miller says that Google talked last summer with UCSD and Sandwell about incorporating the technology. "There were some legal questions," he says. "But we are comfortable." And William Decker, UCSD's technology-transfer official on the case, says, "we followed the process we always do to get appropriate fair value".

Sandwell wants other researchers to use his bathymetric map, and asks commercial providers to contact him before use. Oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil have done so and funded his research. But Google didn't contact Sandwell when it first started using an earlier version of the bathymetry in 2005, and he raised the issue with the company last year as it was working on its oceans system.

Tony Haymet, the Scripps's director who led discussions with Google, acknowledges that there were no negotiations for compensation. Asked why the university didn't push to receive anything when state universities are facing major financial difficulties, Haymet responded: "That's a good question."

Last August, the US National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, pulled a version of Sandwell's technology from its website in part because of the copyright issue.

So far, all that Sandwell has received in return for his work is a year's worth of Google Earth Pro software — normal cost US$400 — for his classes. He is now applying to a Google foundation for funds to support a postdoctoral research position in oceanography.