Annoyance of the Day: Maps and Intellectual Property

For Christmas 2007, I received a TomTom ONE 3rd Edition GPS Navigation System as a gift from my parents. While I don’t often do a lot of traveling beyond my daily commute to work, I do occasionally, so it’s come in quite handy, particularly as we don’t have a cell phone with which to communicate with someone else en-route if we get lost. However, over the past two and a half years, roads have changed. The only significant change in the local area that I’m aware of is the 146/I-290 intersection, but it’s likely that other roads have changed as well, and the point of a GPS is to navigate me through the places I’m not familiar with.

So, I decided I’d finally get around to hooking it up to my computer and seeing how one goes about updating it. The TomTom software happily offered to update me to the latest version, plus the next 18 months of map updates, for the low low price of somewhere around $75. Since I think that’s around the cost of a new unit, I’m not planning on going that route.

It’s interesting how valuable map data is. It’s an interesting form of intellectual property, in that one would think that most of it would be available from public domain sources. But somehow it’s not, and so the various mapping companies (there’s only one or two, I think, that just license the data to the various GPS manufacturers and online mapping providers) spend a lot of effort collecting the data, by driving around every road they can with their own GPS, and noting the various street signs. I suspect that one of the main driving forces behind Google’s Street View car is actually to collect the mapping data themselves so they can at some point stop buying it from other sources. The Google Maps application for Apple’s iOS doesn’t integrate with the built-in GPS in the later-model iPhones since Google hasn’t paid for that use of the mapping data, or so I’ve been told. It seems that companies that use map data as a business model have found that driving around to collect data is more efficient and/or accurate than trying to use various public domain sources such as government records of roads being constructed.

If there’s a lot of effort that goes into creating accurate maps, it makes some sense for them to be protected by copyright law. But since we’re all so used to going to online mapping services that offer their services for free, it feels like map data ought to be free. There’s one organization I know of that is trying to create a free wiki-like map. I have no idea how accurate or complete they’ve gotten. I’m not aware of anyone working on loading free third-party map data into commodity GPS hardware, although I assume it must be possible.

I think this is just another poorly-constructed rant as I’m annoyed that I can’t get current map data on my GPS. That’s all.