Maps make stories easier to understand. Whether it is history, geography or political science, a map can break down complex details into a simple picture, and bring immediate clarity. The boundaries depicted by a map are often fundamental to the story. As a result, the accuracy of maps is of particular concern, and often requires navigating legal and regulatory paths to avoid argument and controversy. This note offers a brief look at the issues that private publishers must keep in mind when publishing maps.

The use of maps in publications by private publishers is governed by the National Map Policy, 2005 ("NMP"), and detailed guidelines ("Guidelines") issued by the Survey of India ("SOI") in December 2016. Under the Guidelines, copyright of both digital and analogue maps vest with the SOI.

Overview of the SOI Guidelines

Fundamentally, maps intended to be published in India must contain accurate and reliable information, particularly with regard to the external boundaries and coastlines. The SOI is responsible for producing, maintaining and disseminating the topographic map database of the country, under the NMP. In turn, SOI issues various guidelines on the implementation of the NMP from time to time. The Guidelines relevant for the present note are titled, "Instructions for Publication of Maps by Govt and Private Publishers – 2016" (see)

These Guidelines explain the restrictions that exist with regard to the publication of maps, i.e., restrictions on the scale and contents of maps. They also detail the processes that need to be followed before publishing certain kinds of maps. Additionally, publishers need to be wary of penal consequences of publishing inaccurate maps. These issues are discussed in more detail below.

Categorisation of Maps

The Guidelines impose restrictions on the scale and contents of maps which are published. The procedure for publication of maps depends on two things: (i) on the category of the maps (i.e. restricted or unrestricted); and (ii) the scale on which the map is proposed to be published.

A straightforward map using an SOI map as base, without changing the original scale, requires no further permissions. But if SOI base maps are adapted with a different scale from that issued by SOI, or if non-SOI maps are used, then special permissions are required.

A further categorisation is that of whether the map for publication falls within the 'Restricted Category' or the 'Unrestricted Category', as that would determine if additional government approvals are required.

Legal Consequences of Depicting Inaccurate External Boundaries and Coast Lines of India

There are multiple implications of showing inaccurate boundaries, and the exact legal effect depends on the nature of the depiction itself. These range from legal effects such as those under the Official Secrets Act, 1923 (restricting the collection and sharing of information about 'prohibited places'), the Customs Act, 1962 (prohibiting the export and import of certain maps), to the Criminal Law (Amendment Act) Act, 1990.

Criminal offence

In general terms, the publication of maps depicting inaccurate external boundaries and coastlines of India is treated as questioning the territorial integrity of India, and a person found guilty of the same, may be punishable with imprisonment or with fine or both.

Trading in official secrets

A more serious offence is that found in Section 5 of the Official Trade Secret Act, 1923, which deals with wrongful communication of information. It makes a person guilty of an offence, if that person unlawfully communicates or otherwise uses any map, among other things, over which that person has control, whose disclosure can affect the sovereignty and integrity of the country, or the state security. The offence includes communication, using information for the benefit of a foreign power, and failing to take reasonable care of the information that is in one's possession. Consequences can include imprisonment of anything up to 10 years, depending on the gravity of the offence.

Copyright violation

Violating SOI's copyright in publishing its maps without authorisation and appropriate permission and credit, can lead to an offence of copyright infringement as well. The copyright of all maps published by the SOI vests with the Government of India and these maps may not be reproduced or used as basis by publishers without permission of the Surveyor General of India. Any unauthorized reproduction of SOI maps may lead to imprisonment of anything between 6 (six) months to 3 (three) years and with a fine.

Customs violations

Mere publication of an inaccurate map is not the only act that may lead to an offence. It is prohibited to also import into India any publication containing any works, signs or visible representations which directly or indirectly question the frontiers of India. Similarly, it is prohibited to export maps on a scale of one-fourth inch or more equal to a mile and the micro-films obtained from such maps depicting any part of India including its international boundaries and showing topographical features by contours.

Common questions about publishing maps

Some commonly asked questions relating to the publication of maps are discussed here.

— Can a publisher add icons etc to depict places on a map?

So long as the scale of the map remains unchanged and the boundaries of the map are not altered, there is no restriction on the use of icons or other placeholders on a map.

— What is meant by information of a 'sensitive nature' that cannot be depicted on a map?

While the term 'information of a sensitive nature' has not been defined in the Guidelines, Section X of the Guidelines contain a list of items that appear to be sensitive and which cannot be depicted on a map. These include defence installations, civil vital points like hydroelectric projects, dams, oil refineries, atomic power stations, heavy engineering factories, steel plants, civil dockyards, important railway yards, workshops, installations under All India Radio, telecommunications installations and water purification/supply installations.

— Which maps can be used without taking permission?

Maps that are prepared on the basis of the SOI base maps without there being any change in scale do not require prior permission to be obtained, provided that the prepared map does not fall within the 'restricted' category.

— Does prior permission need to be obtained for publishing pre-independence maps?

Yes, prior permission from the SOI is required for publishing pre-independence maps.


The publication of maps is not as straightforward as it may seem to the ordinary reader. The legal implications of publishing inaccurate maps can be quite severe. The SOI has a detailed set of guidelines for obtaining permissions before proceeding with any such publication. However, even before seeking permission from SOI, it is important for publishers to understand the kinds of maps they intend to publish, and factor in time and cost of obtaining appropriate advice and permissions.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.