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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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  • Whoops (Score:3, Insightful)

    by njfuzzy (734116) <ian@ian-[ ]om ['x.c' in gap]> on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:23AM (#28503169) Homepage
    Just because you lose money doesn't mean you can change the rules after the fact. I guess this guy shouldn't have bid so low to get that contract.
  • Lost money? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mmarlett (520340) * on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:32AM (#28503225)

    The developer, at least in the linked articles, does not claim that it has lost money on the system. It simply claims to own the data and that it has licensed the exclusive rights (from another private company) to develop with the data. The question becomes, "So, OK, you have paid to develop this data, but why? It is, after all, public data."

  • Re:Whoops (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:34AM (#28503235)

    It's called 'renegotiation'.

    Others call it blackmail.

    Whatever. he dude's playing a dangerous game.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:19AM (#28503585)

    1) The patent only grants exlusivity to the owner for the method itself, not the data.
    2) The data is intrinisically owned by the City of SF.

    Both these points will destroy and generally make the company look like money grubbing greed-monsters from the netherrealm.

  • Copywrongs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:54AM (#28503811) Journal

    If the data could be copyrighted, ownership would go to the creator of the data. That would be the city of SF, not the programmer. They created the data with the software they contracted him to produce for them, then they ran their software on their hardware, watching their mass transit movements and recording the results on their computers. The programmer could not own the data because he could not create it. He has no mass transit system with which to do so.

    In any case, it is highly unlikely anyone could copyright the data. Copyright requires at least minimal creativity. Data produced automatically requires no creativity. In addition, works produced by the government (ie. by the public for their own good via their chosen representatives) cannot be copyrighted.

    The programmers actions are likely to be considered by the court (unless he backs down very quickly) blackmail. These days, if the actions threaten public safety, they might even be considered terrorism. Under these charges, even if he backs down the damage is done and he might well be looking at many years in prison. The SF DA could file such charges to scare him as they often do with other charges. But terrorism charges tend to go all the way through once the process is started. To prevent others from trying this stunt, they may well do just this. And I hope they do.

    The contract may have given him the right to use the data. There's no doubt it my mind that it did not give him sole use, much less state that he also had sole control over its use. There's no way the SF city attorneys would have allowed that in a contract.

  • by TinBromide (921574) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:09AM (#28503921)

    Even so, I have the feeling there aren't many courts that would have upheld that contract, but I felt it was best to have the worst portions excised.

    Better a few billable hours up front than hundreds of billable hours in a court case later.

  • Re:Copywrongs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by langelgjm (860756) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:12AM (#28503949) Journal

    In any case, it is highly unlikely anyone could copyright the data. Copyright requires at least minimal creativity. Data produced automatically requires no creativity.

    True, but the "minimal" creativity is extremely minimal. Meaning that if anyone did any selection or editing or massaging of the information in any way, it might pass the threshold.

    I once asked my IP law prof if images captured by automated cameras (e.g. from toll booths) could be copyrighted, since there was no human involvement, and it was basically a purely mechanical process, devoid of creativity. He agreed with me in spirit, but said that even the act of installing a camera, or setting up an automated camera, would likely qualify as enough creativity in courts these days.

    In addition, works produced by the government (ie. by the public for their own good via their chosen representatives) cannot be copyrighted.

    That only applies to works of the federal government. State laws vary. (An added caveat is that the federal government can acquire copyrighted works).

  • by abigsmurf (919188) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:20AM (#28504023)
    To me the author of the article is deliberately confusing public timetables with transmissions showing the position and expected arrival times of a bus.

    If the position and expected arrival time is calculated on the fly, that's more of a service than just pure publically available data. If the condition of this service being provided is that the data is confidential or restricted to licensees. The provided data is processed real time using their equiptment and code. It's one thing to say "at 2:12pm the bus is 5 miles from transponder 2A, 1/5 mile from 4B and 8 miles from 1E" which is pure statistics (albeit collected from private equiptment), but to say "it's just left the anystreet stop and will arrive at noname plaza in 6 minutes in the current traffic conditions", could be seen as editorialising. If you're able to get as much of this information whenever you want, it then goes beyond fair use too.

    An extreme argument of what the author is saying could be this: The fact that Michael Jackson died is public fact, a 400 word article going into the detail of how he died is copyrighted and subject to fair use restrictions. The interesting argument that applies here is, if that same news report was machine generated based on a few facts fed into it and the rest padded out through AI, could you copyright that?
  • Re:Whoops (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Paradise Pete (33184) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:50AM (#28504243) Journal

    NBIS may own copyrights on that data because they have invested tens or hundreds of thousands in employees and installing those transponders. They can only recoup the cost + make a profit by charging tens of thousands per month.

    Their motivation is clear, but data is not typically copyrightable. That they have invested money and want to make a profit doesn't change that.

  • by Paradise Pete (33184) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @11:53AM (#28504275) Journal

    Maps are databases.

    Maps are the presentation of data, not the data itself.

  • Re:Whoops (Score:4, Insightful)

    by vux984 (928602) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @12:28PM (#28504601)

    It's just business -- you can't walk into a BMW dealership and demand they give you a new car for $1,000. The seller sets the price, and if you don't like it, don't buy it.

    But if you do walk into a BWM dealership and ask them for the best price on a BMW complete with a navigation system that lets you see where you've driven, how fast, what your fuel efficience was, etc, etc, etc.

    They turn around and sell you a car; but it turns out it was below their cost.

    They can't turn then around and say that all the data produced by the navigation system actually belongs to them and that you need to pay copyright license fees in order to see the data your navigation system has been collecting for you... (er for them??).

  • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Sunday June 28, 2009 @02:18PM (#28505681)

    But maps are "facts themselves." Unless, of course, you want to argue that there's "artistry" in deciding what kind of information to put on the map -- but then you could argue that there's exactly the same kind of artistry in deciding what to include in a database!

    In other words, if the Copyright Act of 1790 made a distinction between maps and databases, then it was wrong. Either both should be copyrightable, or (better yet) neither should be!

  • Re:Whoops (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Nutria (679911) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @03:29PM (#28506273)

    If NBIS owns (copyright owner) the data, he has to pay whatever they charge. If the San Francisco local government owns the data, then it's probably public data, I'm not sure. NBIS may own copyrights on that data because they have invested tens or hundreds of thousands in employees and installing those transponders.

    I work for the company that runs a big chunk of E-ZPass, and even though

    • the transponders are built by a private company,
    • "rented" to citizens from stores leased by us, a private company,
    • they send their money to us, and not the government,it would never even occur to us to treat it as if it were our data.

      Someone in SanFran City Hall is doing a piss-poor job of contract management!

  • by Cassander (251642) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @06:03PM (#28507371)

    After I moved to SF, I sold my car. No need for it here.

    Unless, of course, you ever want to leave SF for any reason. I know there's some decent public transportation to surrounding areas, but it's far from comprehensive, especially after the sun goes down.

    Speaking of public transportation, it sure would be nice to get BART up here (I live in Santa Rosa). Fuck you Marin County, fuck you very much.

  • Re:Whoops (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Nekomusume (956306) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:46PM (#28508841)

    It's called 'fraud'.

    He's claiming the data is his under copyright. You can't copyright facts. Thus, fraud.

The number of arguments is unimportant unless some of them are correct. -- Ralph Hartley

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