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.

7 thoughts on “Annoyance of the Day: Maps and Intellectual Property

  1. I suspect that, if maps weren’t explicitly named in the Copyright Act as copyrightable, they would have all gone into the public domain after it was ruled that phone books aren’t copyrightable.

    15 – 20 years ago, the US finally accepted the transition from what we called the “sweat of the brow doctrine” (you get copyright protection as a reward for the work you do) to the “modicum of originality doctrine” (you get copyright protection as a reward for being creative and original). In modern times, non-fuctional creativity is something we kind of don’t want in our maps, so it’s unlikely that maps would be protected.

  2. Map makers apparently frequently introduce purposeful errors into their maps to catch copying. I wonder if a map maker has ever tried to claim copyright infringement on the basis of the copying of those highly creative errors?

  3. OpenStreetMap’s data for Providence seems to be mostly right, but I see three obvious errors:
    1. The map includes half a mile of train track that I’ve fairly sure doesn’t exist any more.
    2. It’s missing the new foot bridge over I-195.
    3. The hurricane barrier is missing.

  4. I bet one could create a good enough map for in-car driving directions almost completely automatically from GPS traces. If tons of people turned left 100 feet ahead it’s probably OK to do the same. Lacking street names would be annoying but that would be relatively easy to add by hand.

  5. Dictionaries do that too, and there have been cases where exhibit 1 was “Their dictionary contains a word we made up completely.”

  6. I believe that’s exactly the approach OpenStreetMap is trying to do.

  7. OpenStreetMap has a page on such things, with many examples, and a reference to a newspaper article about a lawsuit.

    There’s also the semi-famous-in-an-obsure-corner-of-society debacle over Columbo’s first name, first falsely put into a trivia book to detect copying. But in that case, the courts ruled that copying facts wasn’t a copyright violation.

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