Why You Can’t Use Google Transit in D.C.

It’d be fair to describe me as somewhat hostile towards intellectual property rights. Intellectual property rights exist only to the extent necessary to ensure that future creators of intellectual property will continue to produce. Full stop. Past creators of intellectual property are entitled to not a bit more; they have no legitimate claim to any profits generated from their works beyond that.

Which is why I hope public transit agencies who are wrongly claiming to posses a “copyright” and other intellectual property rights in their transportation routing and scheduling data lose, and lose horribly.

For the record, not all local governments are behaving this way. San Francisco, Boston, and Portland in particular have all been exemplary in making their public transport data available for free, even linking on their websites to independently created applications, for iPhones or other devices, that provide passengers with updates and route planning information.

Oh, but not the DC Metro. The DC Metro thinks that, rather than providing improved, more useful transportation services, it should be getting paid for the transit data it incidentally generates in the course of operating its trains and buses.

How much do they want to be paid? Apparently enough to justify a half million in investigating what they could be paid! From July,

In the recently-approved budget, Metro staff included a $500,000 item to hire a consultant for “Intellectual Property Valuation” service. A Metro spokesperson said that they were interested in figuring out what valuable intellectual property they have and what it might be worth in the market.

The Metro is concerned with potentially losing ad revenue from their website if they allow outside organization to offer route finding services. And what do they make per a year from their website? Well, last year it was $68,000. As one commenter pointed out, if releasing their transit data recruited a mere 88 new passengers, it pays for itself. That’s even assuming the WMATA somehow lost all of its web traffic as a result.

Greater Greater Washington has a great take down of the Metro’s refusal to make their data available, stretching back to the beginning of the wrangling with Google Transit. Check out the latest update here:

Metro’s real business is transportation. The ad revenue is a nice sideshow, but it shouldn’t trump convenience to riders. Wilson was arguing that Metro should not help riders in order to force them to use the Web site against their will, all to protect this tiny sliver of revenue. Why not charge for the trip planner entirely? Should Metro promulgate a new policy that every train will pause for 15 seconds after it reaches a station and before the door opens, in order to force riders to look at the ads on the walls? What’s the difference?

The WMATA does now make its data available online, for not fee, but with a ludicrously restrictive license. Note that “WMATA maintains title, ownership, rights and interest in and to the Data.” What ownership rights would these be? Well, it’s not going to be trade secret if it’s publicly released. It’s not trademark. It’s certainly not patent. So what is it?

Apparently, copyright. Next up, a glance at whether Metro has a legal leg to stand on.

-Susan

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