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Controversy Over San Francisco Public Transportation Data 111

Posted by Soulskill
from the information-wants-to-be-expensive-sometimes dept.
paimin writes "A struggle is breaking out in San Francisco over whether the developer of a publicly-funded installation of real-time tracking for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency has a right to control the use of data from the system. The situation is not totally clear, but this sure seems like an attempt to use patent threats to hijack public data. The city paid for the system, and the developer claims he lost money on the deal, so now he's shutting down applications like Routesy and Munitime that use data from the system unless they license the 'copyrighted' data from him."
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Controversy Over San Francisco Public Transportation Data

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  • Re:Lost money? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ironsides (739422) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:51AM (#28503365) Homepage Journal

    The question becomes, "So, OK, you have paid to develop this data, but why? It is, after all, public data."

    This gets into the contracts and the "data rights" agreements. For example, there are a few different contracts that can be set up even when a government pays a company to develop an application.

    No Data Rights: The customer (government) buys the application and can use it as is. The customer gets no detailed information, source code or redistribution rights, just an end product.
    Trade-off: The developer charges less for development as they believe they will be able to sell it elsewhere or further develop it as the sole source.

    Limited Data Rights: The customer buys the application and has full access to the detailed information, source code, etc. However, it can not be redistributed for a number of years (say, 5). After that number of years, the customer has full data rights.
    Trade-off: The developer charges slightly more for development, as they will not have a monopoly on the product after a few years.

    Full Data Rights: The customer has full access to everything necessary to duplicate and modify the product immediately.
    Trade-off: The developer chargers more as they can not guarantee that they will make any further money off of the product.

    It's like professional photographers. It's a picture of you, but if you want a copy, you're going to have to pay for it. If you want the negatives, you're going to have to pay for those as well. There are further variations that combine these ones, but they give you an idea of the three types that get modified for an actual contract. From the article, it sounds like NBIS is trying to claim that SF doesn't have the data rights to redistribute the information beyond a specific set of applications/methods. To figure out what the truth is, we would need to read the contracts.

  • by wjh31 (1372867) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:58AM (#28503421) Homepage
    "I would hazard a guess that more companies are going to try monetizing the data aggregates and outputs."

    see http://tech.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/05/19/1846258 [slashdot.org] for wolfram¦alpha copywright claim over its outputs
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:18AM (#28503577)

    Gee - last I heard - you couldn't copyright a database.

    You heard wrong. Individual facts aren't copyrightable. But collect a large number into a database or encyclopedia and they are copyrightable.

    But this is a different question from who owns the copyright, and the license terms, if any. This would be in the contracts...

  • Re:Lost money? (Score:5, Informative)

    by mmarlett (520340) * on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:20AM (#28503595)
    The city of San Francisco says that it is a no data rights agreement. From the article:

    Muni spokesperson Judson True says ... that, no, Muni owns the data in question and that the public is, of course, entitled to access it. In fact, he went even further: Muni isn't just giving us all permission to access the data, they're also committed to finding ways to make it easier to get to it.

  • by igjeff (15314) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:25AM (#28503625)

    They lost, and they lost rather completely.

    Here's a starting point for exploring some of this data. There's probably more places where this data is available from the NWS in very open formats, and I believe more is to come.

    http://www.weather.gov/rss/ [weather.gov]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:33AM (#28503679)
    No a map is a piece of paper with images on it. They can be copyrighted. You are talking about a database with names and numbers (names like cities, streets, rivers, etc. and numbers like addresses, latitudes, etc.). That's not a map, that's a database. Granted it is a database that with the right software engine can be used to display a map, but a map on its own it is not.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:45AM (#28503743)

    This is available in XML for years now. A while into it, AccuWeather apparently tried to apply some pressure, but it's been up and running to the day.

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:01AM (#28503861) Journal

    Are you sure about that? Maps are databases.

    Not in copyright lingo they aren't. Interestingly, maps were one of the original works mentioned in the earliest federal copyright act. [wikipedia.org] "Databases" has a very different meaning; US copyright law has been loathe to grant protection to facts themselves. IIRC, the EU does have copyright protection (or some kind of protection) for databases.

  • by bitingduck (810730) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:28AM (#28504083) Homepage

    IANAL, but I believe it also depends on how the facts are organized. If its a simple list by date or time alphabetical order, then they generally aren't copyrghtable. Being able to copyright that would prevent someone else from collecting the same facts independently and publishing them in an obvious order. If there's some creative addition to the data structure or organization then the database may be copyrightable, while the facts themselves are still not copyrightable.

    I.e. someone could publish a database with some creative structure and relationships and you can't copy that and republish with the same structure, but if you just take the facts and organize them some other way you can do that.

  • Re:Google Uses It (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:35AM (#28504145)
    Except it sucks on my campus. I've seen a timer (we have scrolling LCDs with information at the most popular stops) go from "10 minutes" to "0 minutes" to "arriving" and then "30 minutes" without any bus passing by.
  • Re:Google Uses It (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @12:25PM (#28504569)

    No, Google doesn't use it. Google uses the published schedules. NBIS uses realtime GPS position data of the vehicles.

  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @01:29PM (#28505201) Homepage

    I met the inventor of NextBus some years ago at the Hacker's Conference. What they get from the bus is position, speed, and a few bits of data like the destination sign setting, "doors open" and "wheelchair lift deployed". After much crunching on this data, info like "Next bus at this stop: 6 minutes" comes out. Over time, as more data comes in, the predictions get better. It's a good machine learning problem, because you have actuals; you can tell when the bus eventually gets to the stop, so you have hard data from which to validate the prediction algorithm. You don't even need a map.

    The early business plan for NextBus had a little dedicated receiver they were going to sell to consumers. The idea was that you have one at home, and it tells you the number of minutes until the next bus gets to the stop near your house, so you know when to leave the house. That was before the World Wide Web, so that wasn't necessary.

    Originally, Muni management hated the system, because it was too honest about their bad service. But after much political effort, eventually it was deployed on a few lines, where it was very popular. Then it was put in everywhere.

    Muni probably owns the raw data, and NextBus probably owns the predictions. I'm not sure on that, though.

  • Re:Whoops (Score:4, Informative)

    by Dare nMc (468959) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @04:08PM (#28506589)

    they cant...you need to pay copyright license fees in order to see the data your navigation system has been collecting for you... (er for them??).

    The auto industry is one of the culprits that does almost exactly that with the fault descriptions, and related data logs from "their" controllers. IE many data parameters cannot be looked at our changed with any of the data readers available to non-dealers. Sure they are required to allow these readers to exist and show some standard faults and data in a open format. But most of the data logged on your car, will require you to pay money to a licensed dealer to access. This may be justified while the car is under warranty, but there is no unlocking, or accessing that data for free once the warranty has expired.

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