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Who Owns Your Neighborhood?

This week’s sign of the IP apocalypse:

A mathematician who pioneered a fractal-based urban-mapping technique is embroiled in a copyright battle that raises legal questions about whether a company can claim ownership of the definition of neighborhoods: their specific locations and boundaries. The dispute highlights a growing movement to quantify the amorphous tendrils connecting communities.

Bernt Wahl had the idea in 2004 to use a blend of mathematical modeling and old-fashioned shoe leather to map out unofficial neighborhoods — areas like Bernal Heights in San Francisco, or New Orleans’ French Quarter — whose borders are drawn mostly in the minds of the inhabitants.

Since then, he’s produced maps defining more than 18,000 neighborhoods in 350 U.S. and international cities, which are used in everything from search localization to epidemiology. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is currently using Wahl’s maps to better understand which neighborhoods are being slammed hardest by the mortgage crisis.

Vermont-based mapping company Maponics is now suing Wahl to keep him from creating any more neighborhood maps “derived from or containing parts of” the original maps he produced four years ago, which defined 7,000 neighborhoods in 100 cities. Wahl did that work as a contractor for a real estate web portal, which then sold the copyright to Maponics. Because American’s biggest metropolitan areas were included in the original batch of maps, the lawsuit could effectively bar Wahl from the mapmaking business for good.


If Maponics (homepage here) is suing to enjoin use of a specific computer program (reproduction, distribution, and so forth) , then it is likely on pretty safe ground.  If it is suing to enjoin use of specific images, then it is also probably on pretty safe ground.  If it is suing to enjoin use of the data that Wahl and his colleagues used to create the original maps, then Maponics should be and I hope will be flogged with an IP noodle.  Maponics doesn’t and can’t own the underlying data, because Maponics didn’t create it, and from the story above, it appears that Wahl didn’t create it, either.  At most, it appears that Wahl and his colleagues collected a bunch of public domain data and transferred the collection to Maponics.  That might give Maponics a weak “collective copyright” leg to stand on, but it appears that Wahl only mapped the data to pre-existing neighborhoods, and there is little that is original or copyrightable in documenting something that already existed.  Wahl’s methods for combining and representing it are uncopyrightable “methods of operation” under Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act.  (In theory, a method is patentable — but only so long as the method is novel, nonobvious, and useful.)  Copyright law would preempt any claim to the method, the data, or the maps that is based on the law of “unfair competition.”

Mapmaking tools are widely available these days, and maps themselves occupy an odd place in modern copyright law in light of the Feist decision.  (Copyright historians know that maps have long had honored places in the law, but as justifications for copyright have shifted, copyright in maps is less secure than it once was.)  That combination puts professional mapmaking firms like Maponics in a tough position.  They would like to charge high prices for professional services to clients who are willing to pay for them, all things being equal.  But information technology and networks of collaboration make cheap maps easy to come by.  It’s a story that is being repeated over and over again across the many worlds of creativity and innovation.