Can You Copyright Neighborhood Boundaries?

from the insanity-in-the-map-world dept

Another day, another crazy ridiculous copyright lawsuit. A mathematician who focused on creating more accurate maps that designated actual neighborhoods, rather than just zipcode-based neighborhoods, is being sued by a company called Maponics, who claim it owns the copyright on the neighborhood boundaries the mathematician created. Seriously. The mathematician, Bernt Wahl, developed some neighborhood maps for a company a few years back, and that company sold the copyrights on those maps to Maponics. But Wahl has kept creating new maps, and gives them away free to researchers. After all, they’re maps. It’s basically factual information, and Wahl considers his neighborhood boundary definitions to be public domain. But Maponics is basically telling Wahl he can no longer make any more maps, and only it can sell his neighborhood maps. Yet another example where copyright is clearly being used to stifle, rather than encourage, creativity.

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Companies: maponics

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Comments on “Can You Copyright Neighborhood Boundaries?”

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Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Erm, aren’t such boundaries a part of property deeds and therefore public property? Strange.

Ah, perhaps that wasn’t clear enough in the post. The maps he created are based on what the *real* neighborhoods are, rather than the mapped ones. So, for example, within a city, there may be neighborhoods like “Soma” or “Cole Valley” or whatever, that aren’t official neighborhoods, without official boundaries. He went and figured out what those boundaries should be.

The *city* has official boundaries, but the neighborhoods don’t.

Hulser says:

It's the process, stupid

I’m not saying that I necesarilly agree with Maponics for suing the mathematician, but I think the story is a bit more complicated than just the copyrightability of neighborhood boundaries. To me, it looks like the problem is that the mathematician is using a copyrighted process to create his neighborhood maps. It would seem to me that Maponics would have a better case if it focused on the process (which, as I understand it, can be copyrighted) rather than the output of the process i.e. data (which can’t be).

If someone owns the copyright on a black box that spits out widgets, but doesn’t own the copyright on widgets, doesn’t the company have the legal right to prevent other people from using their black box to make widgets?

Hulser says:

Re: Re: It's the process, stupid

Copyrighted what?!
Based on the article…”a fractal-based urban-mapping technique”. The article doesn’t specify, so I can only assume that Maponics has copyrighted this process (in spite of the fact that the mathematician was the one who developed it). On reviewing the article again, however, the suit does appear to be specifically about the maps that were created by this process while he was working for the real estate company, not about maps he’s created using the process after. However, I think the issue is still not so clear cut. Again, I’m not saying that Maponics is right, but I can at least see the difference between one type of data, like baseball scores, and another kind of data, which is the output of a copyrighted process.

Might want to look up what copyright is for.
The original intent of copyright is completely irrelevent to my point. I agree wholeheartedly that the original intent of copyright was to promote innovation and that this ideal has been corrupted over the years…however, this has no bearing on my point the legal issue of copyright is complicated by factors such as data being output by a copyrighted process.

hegemon13 says:

Re: Re: Re: It's the process, stupid

I think m’s point is that copyright does not apply here. A patent on the process could possibly apply, but not a copyright. However, Maponics threat is clearly about copyright, which can only cover a specific expression of fact as opposed to facts themselves. If Wahl is using the same colors, fonts, legends, etc, he could violate copyright. If he is simply using the same public information/process, he is not violating copyright, though it is possible that he has run afoul of a bogus patent.

Hulser says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's the process, stupid

A patent on the process could possibly apply, but not a copyright.
Right. I pointed this out below too, but I mistakenly used “copyright” when I should have used “patent”.

However, Maponics threat is clearly about copyright, which can only cover a specific expression of fact as opposed to facts themselves.
Right, but…the original point I was trying to get across is that because the copyrighted material was created by a unique process (which was presumably patented), the issue is not as straightforward as it first appears. I bet the vast majority of people would say that it’s downright silly to try and patent baseball scores. On the face if it, it’s just a dumb idea. But if you presented the Maponics scenario to the same people, I’d bet that far more would be sympathetic to the “copyright” holder. I’d further bet that this will come into play in the arguments from the Maponics lawyers.

Hulser says:

Re: Re: It's the process, stupid

You can’t patent formulas.

But you can patent processes. (BTW, I mistakenly referenced the copyright on the process, whereas it should have been patent.)

You shouldn’t be able to copyright the results of a formula.

Well, whether you should be able to is a separate issue from whether you legally can.

This is why Maponics will lose.

I hope you’re right, but I’m guessing that the Maponics lawyers will try to say that because the maps were a result of a (presumably) patented process, that they are somehow unique in their expression.

ian (user link) says:

the *other* neighborhood expert here

yes, i’ll claim expertise here.
Adding some more context to this story…Urban Mapping, does not stand as defendant or plaintiff to any legal proceedings. We do have Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, MapQuest, SuperPages, YellowPages and many others as clients. don’t want to comment on the merits of any matters, but there you have it

person says:

Re: the *other* neighborhood expert here

You also tried to license the neighborhood data in the article, why not have the five groups making neighborhood data work together and share it with the world instead of fighting over it.

P.S. the data should be available for free, not from a person blogging to get free SEO links to sell his product.

FoolsGold (profile) says:

Maponics Copyright product of algorithm

I’ll print out a hard copy of the article and take down to Joe’s Neighborhood Bar to read it. Ofcourse, I’ll have to check the copyrighted boundaries for that bar’s “neighborhood”.

Ofcourse the company that hired the programmer is not happy if the ‘work for hire’ winds up being given away free but I have a feeling that Joe’s Neighborhood Bar will let me spend my money there irrespective of what my actual neighborhood is.

Whenever a particular neighborhood develops a certain attraction to being used in real estate ads, the boundaries of that neighborhood expand.

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