September 26, 2005
The new threat: Subway map sharing?

Wired News reports on cease-and-desist letters two transit agencies have sent to, each complaining infringement of intellectual property rights. A student had alerted me to the site a bit earlier, so we have the letters up on Chilling Effects too.

What's up here? The letter from New York's MTA is light on the detail, not much more than "if right, then infringement." It's not clear how helping people find their way through the labyrinthine NY subway system hurts the transit authority, but that didn't seem to enter the equation. As a copyright matter, this transformative posting (re-sized and formatted for mobile devices) has a good claim to fair use.

The letter from San Francisco's BART spells things out further, invoking both copyright and trademark. BART doesn't want people to think out-of-date maps reflect the current subway system -- a valid concern of the sort that trademark law is well-suited to address. Of course they can address this concern short of prohibiting distribution of any maps, by asking the site to indicate clearly the date of its information and its independence from BART, or even by helping to keep it up-to-date.

As reported, the maps' poster has been working to create his own maps to replace the earlier images. Since copyright protects only "original expression," not facts or ideas, it offers thin protection to maps. The transit agencies can't copyright the locations of stations, their names, or the colors and symbols by which the public identifies them. A new map may look very much like the old ones without copying any copyrightable expression. So long as it's clear these are unofficial maps, the trademark "confusion" dissipates as well. I'll look forward to seeing the new maps posted soon -- and then porting them to the Treo!

Posted by Wendy at September 26, 2005 09:40 AM | TrackBack

Out of date subway maps a concern? I just say "Arborway" and "Green Line"...

Posted by: Thomas Roessler on September 26, 2005 01:26 PM

The folks behind the (amazing) BART Widget for OS X had the same problem. So they made their own map, which is both prettier and clearer than the real thing. (The newest version also includes London Underground and angular-schematic style maps as an option.)

Screenshots available at:

Posted by: Joe Gratz on September 26, 2005 06:40 PM

Out of date maps? What a stupid concern. Surely San Francisco doesn't build subway stations so fast that the system changes before the maps can be updated.

Posted by: Paul Gowder on September 27, 2005 09:05 AM
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