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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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  • by HangingChad (677530) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @08:39AM (#28503277) Homepage

    It may be bus arrival times in San Francisco today, but this whole notion of data being exclusive property isn't new and isn't going away. And if Bilski stands and ends up partially undermining software patents, then I would hazard a guess that more companies are going to try monetizing the data aggregates and outputs. Even without Bilski as software becomes more of a commodity market, then data and data aggregates will become the value market.

    This isn't a new concept. The public pays for scientific research at an institution of higher learning also funded by tax dollars, yet sometimes the only way you could get a copy of the results is pay for an expensive subscription to a scientific journal, which claims copyright on the published data.

    This case probably isn't a good example and the developer trying to be the data gatekeeper is going to lose, but it's only the beginning. There will be more.

  • by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:06AM (#28503489)
    Look at the outfits that monetize the NOAA's data: that's public information as well. The NOAA was "publishing" this information in a very complicated binary format, and these outfits were making a ton of money in converting it to other purposes. I remember reading here on Slashdot a couple years ago that the government was thinking of making weather data available in XML or some other standard format, and that a couple of these outfits went after them in court to try and prevent it (thereby preserving their distribution lock.) I don't know what the eventual outcome of that was.
  • by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Sunday June 28, 2009 @09:14AM (#28503541)

    I also seem to recall a few occations of similar stuff where workers stuff was claimed by their employers, also tended to go in favour of the employer, usually especially so because it was stated in whatever contract

    There are, however, limits on those kinds of shenanigans. I worked as a developer back in the eighties for an outfit whose employment contract not only entitled them to ownership of any software or intellectual property that I developed while on company time (obviously I had no problem with that) but ANYTHING I did outside of work, even if in a completely unrelated field, for a period of FIVE YEARS after I left their employment. Naturally I refused to sign that little bastard until they fixed it to my (and my attorney's) satisfaction. 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.

    The place was run by chimpanzees anyway, with a couple of orangutans in the head office. Yeah, it was a game company, and as employers go they made Electronic Arts look good.

  • by bitingduck (810730) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @10:36AM (#28504149) Homepage

    This isn't a new concept. The public pays for scientific research at an institution of higher learning also funded by tax dollars, yet sometimes the only way you could get a copy of the results is pay for an expensive subscription to a scientific journal, which claims copyright on the published data.

    That model is starting to go away (with the publishers kicking and screaming). The US government is starting to (started a while ago) include clauses in grant contracts that limit the exclusive data rights of the investigators, and also require gov't funded authors to use copyright transfer agreements that give the publishers a limited time for exclusive publication. I haven't been keeping up closely, but it's inevitable and accelerating.

  • by nbauman (624611) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @12:11PM (#28505025) Homepage Journal

    If I pay to collect the data & generate a database that doesn't mean that I can be forced to give the data away. But also, I can't stop anybody else from collecting the data & making their own database. If you don't want to buy it from me go forth & make your own database

    That's an interesting argument, and it's logical from where you're coming from.

    But the copyright law comes at it from a different direction.

    If you go to a lot of effort to collect data, that's commendable. In copyright law, that's called "sweat of the brow."

    But in copyright law, you can't copyright data that you've collected just by sweat of the brow. It also takes some kind of creativity or innovation or judgment.

    That's what the Supreme Court decided in Feist. Phone numbers can't be copyrighted. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_Publications_v._Rural_Telephone_Service [wikipedia.org]

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @01:40PM (#28505883) Journal

    You're absolutely right. The boundaries in copyright law are pretty fuzzy when it comes to things like this.

    Maps were almost certainly included in the original act purely to appease mapmakers, not for any principled theory of what copyright should or should not apply to. Retrospectively, however, people justify maps by saying that they do involve artistry, and it's not totally unreasonable. You could even argue that more artistry is involved in making a map than in taking a photograph.

    The most well-known case dealing with whether a collection of facts can be copyrighted is Feist. [wikipedia.org] But the issue is complex, because while facts themselves aren't copyrightable, enough selection of facts can produce a result that is. What is "enough" is usually determined by a court case (or a settlement).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 28, 2009 @05:11PM (#28507431)

    Ahh, but in this case the data that is being collected is bus location information. The information the everyone wants access to is the bus route timing predictions. Those are created via some complex code that looks at the location information and other parameters and information to produce a prediction of when the bus is to arrive. This information may well be copyrighted as it is not "in plain view" but is generated via some creativity.

    Now, if someone else were to generate their own predictions from the actual raw information that is one thing. But just redistributing the predictions generated by NextBus sounds like taking propriatory information and distributing it without the consent of those who created it.

  • by jvkjvk (102057) on Sunday June 28, 2009 @06:17PM (#28507887)

    but isn't that the point? the only people who would 'monetize' formerly open data are weasels.

I've got all the money I'll ever need if I die by 4 o'clock. -- Henny Youngman

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