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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.

2 thoughts on “Who Owns Your Neighborhood?”

  1. Maponics posted some clarifications on Friday to the original article, in the comments section. Thanks!

  2. Here is the text of the comment that DarrinClement is referring to. He appears to be the president of Maponics.

    “To the Editor of Wired:

    I’d like to share a few clarifications. Maponics hasn’t made any claim on “owning a neighborhood”, as the title provocatively suggests. We simply own a database about neighborhoods. Obviously, this is an active case so for those who want the full details, please read the court filings.


    The article portrays Mr. Wahl as believing in the inherent openness of database products. Please consider the facts:

    Mr. Wahl is listed as the author on the copyright that he now claims is fraudulent. He was paid to do this work by HomeGain and he signed the agreements to give this product to HomeGain. All we’ve asked is that he live by the terms of the agreement he himself made with HomeGain.

    Copyrights protect works, not ideas; here is no dispute that a database of information can be copyrighted. Some may not like this, but I’m not here to argue the merits to society in having a copyright law.

    Wahl and HomeGain however, even tried to patent it. A patent would have actually walled-off the ideas and prevented anyone else from creating a similar database. So the altruistic angle presented in the article is far from accurate.

    A telling point: Factle itself now claims a separate copyright on neighborhoods – check out, where it now says “Neighborhood data Copyright 2008 Factle Maps Co.”

    * A Few Corrections *

    This lawsuit is over 1 yr old, filed in October 2007; we have no idea where the November 2008 date in the article came from, nor do we know why this is suddenly of interest to Wired.

    HomeGain gave Mr. Wahl 60 days, not 6 months, to continue distributing the data (this was a HomeGain restriction, which Wahl signed and agreed to, and did not involve Maponics).

    Mr. Wahl claims to have used offshore workers in Malaysia in late 2007 to create his own neighborhood database so that it was distinct from HomeGain’s work; while Maponics prefers to employ US citizens, Mr. Wahl is clearly not restricted from creating his own work.

    Maponics never “threatened” TourSheet and never asked them to stop using “Wahl’s data.” Maponics only asked TourSheet to stop using data that was owned by Maponics.

    * What This Really Boils Down To *

    No one has ever sought to deprive Wahl of his right to earn a living or even to save the world. But as alleged in the complaint, Mr. Wahl cannot use unfair business tactics against Maponics. These include: — claiming ownership and copyright over a product that he does not own; — violating his HomeGain agreement by distributing the product after the time which he was supposed to stop all distribution; — offering lifetime licenses in violation of his agreement with HomeGain; — destroying the value of the Maponics product.

    We are a tiny company, not some big corporation. Maponics now has over 50,000 neighborhoods in its database, showing a real commitment to creating the most robust database available for scientists, city planners, social advocates, as well as businesses. I hope any interested readers will be patient and realize that this article paints only one side of the story.

    Sincerely, Darrin Clement, President, Maponics LLC”

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