Greater Greater Washington

Transit


New York MTA threatens blogger, asserts copyright over schedule

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority's lawyers are going after a local blogger, and attempting to block an iPhone application showing Metro-North railroad schedules. The blog StationStops writes about Metro-North Commuter Railroad service north of New York City, and often criticizes its operations. Its creator, Chris Schoenfeld, also created an iPhone application to give Metro-North riders schedule information. Now the MTA is insisting he pay them to license the data, and at one point even accused the site of pretending to be an official MTA site.


StationStops' iPhone application.

Schoenfeld's iPhone application lists schedules for Metro-North trains. The MTA provides its schedules to Google Transit, but doesn't release the data publicly, as Boston's MBTA recently did and WMATA has done though more restrictively. Therefore, Schoenfeld entered the schedule data manually from the published schedules to create his application.

Earlier this month, MTA marketers and then lawyers contacted him to demand he sign a license agreement or take down his iPhone app. At one point, the lawyers also claimed that his site appeared to be an official MTA site. Perhaps realizing the enormous fallout that would come from headlines like "MTA tries to silence blogger critical of its operations," they quickly backed off that particular claim. However, they continued to demand a share of his revenue, retroactive payment for prior sales, and a $5,000 license fee on top.

Some of the MTA's arguments resemble similar ones from Metro. The MTA told the Stamford Advocate that without a license, the iPhone application might provide inaccurate information. General Manager John Catoe used a similar talking point in a lunchtime chat last year. Ironically, the MTA's proposed agreement refuses to provide reliable data updates. They don't want Schoenfeld's application out there because it might give incorrect information, but if he pays them, then incorrect information isn't a concern?

What's really going on is that MTA (and WMATA) officials view technology differently than many users and developers today. In television, one company controls the distribution (cable or broadcast). They pay content providers for content. Those providers pay companies that make shows, who pay actors. The mobile phone market works similarly. You pay a carrier for service. They negotiate deals with specific phone makers to put phones on their network.

This system works fine for what it is, but it's very limiting. If you are a brilliant TV writer with an idea that none of the networks pick up, you're mostly out of luck. If you're a phone manufacturer with a great new phone, you have to still convince at least one US carrier to sell your phone. You can't just sell the phone to consumers, as you can in Europe. Apple had enormous trouble getting a carrier partner for the iPhone, and had to agree to offer it exclusively on AT&T. Other carriers refused to sell the phone entirely. Any innovation requires negotiation with numerous gatekeepers.

The World Wide Web doesn't work this way. Greater Greater Washington needs no permission from anyone to exist. You don't need anyone's permission to read it. I couldn't make a Greater Greater Washington TV and get it on cable, though I could distribute it via YouTube. Whereas the TV world and the mobile phone world work through deals negotiated by various companies' teams of lawyers, the Web works through a culture of permission already granted either expressly or implied. Enough Flickr photographers have listed their pictures under Creative Commons that I can illustrate most posts without having to ask people ahead of time. Without that, I'd need to plan articles a day or more ahead. I can link to other sites without negotiating with them (an issue that, once upon a time, some companies wanted to restrict).

Metro still mainly operates in the deal world. They negotiated a contract with NextBus, and the service launched. Soon you will be able to make phone calls from Metro stations because WMATA worked out a deal with the carriers. Sometimes Metro pays (as with NextBus), sometimes the other company pays (as with the mobile network). If a new carrier wants to operate on the underground antenna system, they have to work out a deal with the existing carriers. Metro needed a trip planner, so they paid some company to make one and put it on wmata.com. Why would they need another? That's analogous to the Publisher of the Internet deciding that DC already had one neighborhood blog for Shaw, so there can't be more. Back when getting online meant going onto AOL or Prodigy, that's basically how it worked. Those companies saw the Internet as just TV with a mouse.

The MTA is blundering about and getting all this bad press because they look at the world in terms of deals, and figure that this thing going on pertaining to them ought to fit into that world. Unfortunately for them, data itself isn't copyrightable, and as various experts tell the Stamford Advocate, most likely the MTA has no legal basis to stop the application. Unfortunately for Schoenfeld, and us, that doesn't stop the legal department from throwing its weight around, asking Apple to take the app down (as, unfortunately for iPhone users, Apple has tried to make itself another gatekeeper).

The freer Web model has spurred enormously greater innovation than the deal model. It also required some companies to accept that others might earn money as part of their efforts. You can buy something on Amazon.com using the Firefox browser and not give Mozilla a cut, or your Internet service provider. Early on, the AOL-type online services expected to get that cut, and cable companies are still trying to find a way. You can sell a piece of Windows software and not pay Microsoft. We have far more choice of content, software, and devices on computers than we do in cable set-top boxes or mobile phones.

Public transit agencies should be embracing this model. They aren't competing with each other or with their riders. They're taxpayer- and rider-funded organizations designed to provide services to the public. They can get a lot more public benefit by encouraging innovation instead of constantly worrying how to capture their cut of anything anyone does involving transit. Some agencies, like San Francisco's BART, get this. Unfortunately, many don't, to the detriment of public transit and the public everywhere.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Comments

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What's particularly frustrating is how transit agencies quash these innovative platforms because they insist that their own platform is superior and thus it's a customer protection issue. We see that with Metro's trip planner. And Metro North's website hasn't been updated in at least 10 years. The scheduling pages have all the up to date technology of 1998.

What's particularly grating about all this is that the only possible explanation for licensing is that the information is valuable and as a public agency it shouldn't just be giving it away without compensation. That's why we wouldn't want Metro giving free ad space to companies. But scheduling data is really not very valuable, and it's certainly less valuable than the value users get for having better access to it.

I hope this guy stands up and tells MTA to shove it.

by Reid on Aug 19, 2009 11:50 am • linkreport

I can definitely see these transit agencies' points in wanting to make sure the data is complete, accurate, etc. But that's completely not what copyright is for. Copyright is for artistic works, and as the Stamford Advocate said, schedule data are not artistic.

Come to think of it, here's another analogy. Flight data are available all over the Internet, through sites like www.flightstats.com. Obviously, the airlines created these data. But they're not going to go and try to assert copyright over it.

Anyway, maybe there's some sort of common ground. Maybe transit agencies can create APIs, or something similar, of their data. Developers, or anyone else who wishes to use the data, can use it, but the data themselves are still linked directly to the transit agency. So if WMATA had to make a schedule change, it would do so, and that change would be reflected across all applications that use that API.

by Tim on Aug 19, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

Keep in mind that the telephone book is not protected by copyright. Generally speaking (and I'm not a lawyer) a list of facts is not copyrightable.

by Steve on Aug 19, 2009 11:58 am • linkreport

Someone in the transit agency needs to read "http://laws.findlaw.com/us/499/340.html">Feist v. Rural Telephone. The Supreme Court has long said this sort of information is not creative, so it can't be subject to copyright protections.

by tom veil on Aug 19, 2009 11:59 am • linkreport

However, they continued to demand a share of his revenue They do have a share of his revenue, by increased ridership!

by Erik on Aug 19, 2009 12:42 pm • linkreport

A legal question from a non-lawyer: Would it be legal for a person (or group of people) to, on their own, monitor the progress of every single bus in the Metro system and thus create their own Metrobus timetable? Position people at every bus stop, mark down when each bus arrives, and you have essentially created a timetable.

Not very practical (although it could work on small transit systems like Salt Lake City or Buffalo that just operate one single light rail line), but would it be legal?

by metronci on Aug 19, 2009 1:02 pm • linkreport

@ metronci: Acutally, with all the social media around, it wouldn't be very hard to get a freakishly accurate time table, especially since it will include detours and other calamities, as opposed to the static pdfs that WMATA publishes. You could even make an app for it, where you just put in your stops and lines, and hit a "I got on!" button, after which your data point gets dump into the system. Since most people only use max 4-5 places they could be presets and hop, you have a living time table!

by Jasper on Aug 19, 2009 1:30 pm • linkreport

This is absolutely absurd. That blogger is making them money by encouraging transit ridership. They should be praising him, not suing him.

by Adam Pagnucco on Aug 19, 2009 1:36 pm • linkreport

@metronci, per earlier comments, data cannot be copyrighted. End of story.

In a previous life I was involved with a startup that sold software that put transit schedules onto a PDA. We didn't charge a lot, and ultimately we were unable to sell many agencies on the service. It disappoints me that rather than see civic provision of these services as a cost savings, they're instead licking their chops at the prospect of new revenues. These agencies have not only forgotten what it means to be public, but also aren't even keeping up with best practices in private industry in leveraging an engaged user base.

I don't fully blame the agencies themselves, but rather a pervasive attitude that the private market should be the model for all human activity, including government. Government funding has been slashed to enforce this mentality. We need to overturn the entire notion that governments are businesses.

by Anderkoo on Aug 19, 2009 4:10 pm • linkreport

@ myself: I was thinking a bit. I am not a programmer, but it should be able to set up a real time departure and arrival system for the whole region through twitter.

You would just tweet a stop number, your line and direction, whether you arrive or depart, and the time.

RS orange VI DE 1234

Would be: Rosslyn, orange line to Vienna, departed at 12h34.

or

Mass1stNE CirGeoUn EB AR 1525

would means that you arrived at Mass Ave & 1st NE on the Circulator Georgetown-Union Station Eastbound bus at 3:25pm.

Plenty of characters left.

Someone would need to make a simple front app, with simple pull down menus or so that would allow people to generate the tweets easily and without fault.

If enough people participate you can generate a near real time map of the whole transit system in DC.

by Jasper on Aug 19, 2009 4:36 pm • linkreport

The leading Supreme Court case on copyright protection (or lack thereof) for compilations of facts is Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).

The long and short of it is that after Feist, you cannot protect a collection of facts, e.g., the names and numbers in a telephone book. You do get protection, however, for whatever creative element is involved in deciding how facts are arranged or which ones to include. In practice this means transit schedule information is highly unlikely to be covered unless there is something more than just a list of times of train/bus arrivals and departures.

by Casey Anderson on Aug 19, 2009 10:09 pm • linkreport

MTA could get revenge on Schoenfeld by building and supporting a free API that provides schedule info to anyone. Then tons of other individuals could build iPhone apps that compete. However, MTA probably lacks the skills to do that. I'll bet Schoenfeld would accept a reasonable offer do it. But MTA is handicapped by pride, so they'd rather piss away the public's money on lawyers.

by Bostonian on Aug 20, 2009 5:15 pm • linkreport

Uh oh, this post is on the front page of slashdot. Better prepare the fire extinguishers...

by toxikfetus on Aug 20, 2009 5:17 pm • linkreport

I personally know someone who's followed protocol w/MTA, requested an electronic version of the data through their process, disclosing he is writing an iphone app, and MTA replied they do not have the requested format.

Nowhere in MTA's reply does it state that the developer is prohibited from writing the application. I hope he finishes it and gets it published. MTA cannot copyright facts, in this case, clock times on a schedule.

by nocase on Aug 20, 2009 9:18 pm • linkreport

I used to work at metro north in the technology division. We didn't have access to schedules in an electronic format then, even internally. Scheduling was done by a different group, and was then licensed to a third party who printed the schedules for us. We had a PDF of the schedule booklet, and that was all.

As with a very similar app for BART not too long ago, I think this is more about licensing deals with third parties than with Metro-North itself.

by anonymous on Aug 22, 2009 9:25 am • linkreport

This looks like "copyfraud." See this article: http://ssrn.com/abstract=787244
From the abstract: "Copyfraud is everywhere. False copyright notices appear on modern reprints of Shakespeare's plays, Beethoven's piano scores, greeting card versions of Monet's Water Lilies, and even the U.S. Constitution. Archives claim blanket copyright in everything in their collections. Vendors of microfilmed versions of historical newspapers assert copyright ownership. These false copyright claims, which are often accompanied by threatened litigation for reproducing a work without the owner's permission, result in users seeking licenses and paying fees to reproduce works that are free for everyone to use. Copyright law itself creates strong incentives for copyfraud. The Copyright Act provides for no civil penalty for falsely claiming ownership of public domain materials. There is also no remedy under the Act for individuals who wrongly refrain from legal copying or who make payment for permission to copy something they are in fact entitled to use for free. While falsely claiming copyright is technically a criminal offense under the Act, prosecutions are extremely rare. These circumstances have produced fraud on an untold scale, with millions of works in the public domain deemed copyrighted, and countless dollars paid out every year in licensing fees to make copies that could be made for free. Copyfraud stifles valid forms of reproduction and undermines free speech...."

by Josh on Aug 24, 2009 6:01 pm • linkreport

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