Train Operators Around The World Stopping Others From Helping Riders... Due To Intellectual Property

from the how-dare-you-help-people!! dept

What is it about folks who operate train lines that make them so confused when it comes to intellectual property? They seem to be focused on harming their own businesses in an effort to "protect" intellectual property. If enforcing your intellectual property makes you worse off, then why are you enforcing it? Just today, we received two separate stories of incredibly backwards thinking from those who operate train-lines -- which makes you really wonder why some people get so focused on protecting intellectual property that they lose sight of the fact that it's harming their business.

We've already talked about those who run trains in Germany and Australia cracking down on people creating their own iPhone train schedule apps, claiming they violated intellectual property rights of the train operators. This makes very little sense for a variety of reasons. First, it is still quite ridiculous that any sort of factual information can be covered by copyright -- but in Europe such "collections" of information can be covered by the database copyrights -- the idea that if you put factual information into a "database" that database then deserves copyright protection. Europe has this, while the US does not -- and studies have shown that contrary to what copyright supports insist, this increased right has actually hindered the database industry in Europe... but that hasn't made the law go away.

But, of course, even more idiotic than just the question of copyrighting facts, is the simple point that these apps make it easier for people to ride the trains, which should be exactly what the train operators are encouraging. Thanks to the mantra of certain copyright supporters that "free is bad," some folks seem unable to think out more than a single step. The fact is, that if people can make a great train schedule app that makes it easier to take the train, then that means more people will take the train, which is where the real money is for train operators. But, of course, the folks who only see one step out, think "wait, we should be making money on that data!" even if it means fewer people take the train, and the net benefit is less.

The latest to make that decision is the UK's National Rail Enquiries, who forced the creators of the MyRail Lite app to shut down (thanks to Donald for sending this in). MyRail Lite was a free iPhone app. NRE is offering its own app... for £4.99. So in the short-term rush to try to score a bit of money from a small group of people, NRE is making the overall rail system a lot more complex for the majority of people. Short-term thinking at its finest.

Unfortunately, the author of the article, Rory Cellan-Jones, starts out by agreeing that this is dumb, but then seems to change his mind, after reading the silly James DeLong article about newspapers where he (in typical DeLong fashion) insists that the use of "free" is what destroyed newspapers. The arguments are easy to debunk, but Cellan-Jones seems to have fallen for them. But it's easy to see how wrong it is in this case: the business NRE is transportation. If it gets people from point A to point B more efficiently, it will be able to make more money charging for that service. A free app that makes the process more efficient helps the bottom line. Trying to scrape up a bit of extra cash at the front end, while making the process more inefficient for more people is incredibly short-sighted.

But, that isn't the most ridiculous story we heard today about trains and intellectual property. Lucretious sends in the news that a group of four very nice women in New York City who have been voluntarily working to make public transportation in NYC more pleasant have been ordered to stop by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The women have set up a website, MTAService.org where they provide information on how to make your public transit in NY better. It's run by four women, who also ride the subways regularly (wearing their own made up uniforms) trying to help provide better service -- helping people find where they need to go, or helping mothers with strollers, for example.

But, of course, the MTA has sent them a cease-and-desist, demanding they pull down the information. You can see the trademark worries -- even though the website clearly states that the MTA Service Specialists (as they call themselves) are in no way affiliated with the MTA (they note "unfortunately.") But, rather than the MTA doing the smart thing, and seeing if they can actually associate themselves with these helpful women, the MTA just wants to shut them down. This is short-term thinking again. Sure, there almost certainly is a valid trademark claim here -- but if someone actually took the time to sit back and look at the facts of the situation, they would realize that a better response would be to see if they could sign these women up officially to help improve service on the subway. As the women note, they're just trying to improve the MTA's service, without costing the city any money at all.

Once again... we see how this aggressive believe in "we must protect our IP!" is actually being used to hinder service improvements, rather than help them.

Filed Under: intellectual property, new york, trains, uk
Companies: mta, national rail enquiries


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  1. identicon
    Ryan, 27 Mar 2009 @ 7:27am

    Re: Too Many Liberties

    The site says that the MTA sent a cease-and-desist letter giving them 72 hours to "take down a video and make other changes to their site." Mike's version: "the MTA has sent them a cease-and-desist, demanding they pull down the information."

    I don't really see much "twisting of the story here", if any. He indicated that these women are only helping the MTA do its job, and that the MTA, while legally correct, is aggressively enforcing its IP rights to the detriment of itself and its customers. So what are you bitching about? What part of that is incorrect?

    It seems to me if he was attempting to "twist the story", he wouldn't link directly to the article and allow anybody to comment on it below where he might be called out. Yet, he gets "called out" even though he accurately represented the MTA's actions.

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