When public information isn’t public or free

Are subway maps the private property of the subway system? According to the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, I guess they are: this from the AP – Subway Authorities Eye IPod-Friendly Maps

It seemed like such a great idea: digitally shrink maps of major subway systems and put them online so people can download them to their iPods for free.
Tens of thousands of people have downloaded maps from http://www.ipodsubwaymaps.com since Web designer and blogger William Bright, 27, created it in early August.
San Francisco and New York City officials were less enthusiastic.
A lawyer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority sent Bright a terse “cease and desist” letter in mid-September demanding he immediately remove the New York City subway map from his Web site.
. . .
An MTA lawyer sent Bright an e-mail Thursday offering him a one-year license to distribute the maps for free, as long as he promises to update them regularly. The catch: The MTA wants a licensing fee of $500.

$500 to get access to the subway map? What ever happened to the idea that public information should be available to the public? Maybe MTA next will want to put a screen in front of the maps and charge a quarter to look at it — like those old binoculars at tourist sites.
At least BART had a better rationale for wanting to maintain some control over the information:

BART’s chief complaint with Bright’s maps was that they didn’t reflect changes made to the transit system’s route alignment earlier this month.

Our information policy needs to separate the principle of control for accuracy from the need for rent-seeking ownership to create financial incentives. The purpose of conventional copyright is both. Rent-seeking is part and parcel of control.
However, an alternative model — the Creative Commons copyright system — allows a separation of the two. For example, this blog operates under the Creative Commons license. It allows me control over who gets to use this for what purposes – and attempts to ensure that appropriate attribution is given. That allows me to exercise some form of quality control. But since this blog is not sustained though royalties, under this system I have waived some of my rights for financial returns, if the information is used for non-commercial purposes.
Maybe the nation’s subway system should put their maps into the Creative Commons. Had they done so, it might have saved everyone a lot of aggravation.


One thought on “When public information isn’t public or free”

  1. At least the Washington Metro system gets it – according to the Washington Post story Lost Underground? Check Your IPod:
    Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency is happy to let people access their maps in a way that’s most convenient. “We want people to know how to get from one place to another on our system,” she said. “If someone wants to put a map on their iPod, that’s fine.”


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