NSW state corporation RailCorp has threatened a Sydney software developer with legal action if he fails to withdraw a train timetable application that is currently the second most popular application in its category in Apple's App Store.
The Transit Sydney app
(Credit: Alvin Singh)
The idea for the application, Transit Sydney, came to web developer Alvin Singh after he began teaching himself how to program in Cocoa Mobile, the Apple-created programming language used to build applications for the company's hugely popular iPhone.
"In December I had some spare time and thought I would learn to program for the iPhone," said Singh, whose day job developing for a News Ltd online property requires a daily commute on Sydney trains.
During that month and January, Singh developed and worked with App Store reviewers to refine the look and feel of Transit Sydney, an iPhone and iPod Touch compatible application that lets users search timetable information for services on Sydney's lines.
The $2.49 application, published by Singh's one-man company FunkWorks, was an instant success, and is currently the second most-popular travel application in the travel section of Apple's Australian App Store.
The application, which displays upcoming train information in a format similar to the monitors found in every Sydney station, ranks just behind a timetable application for the London Underground and just ahead of a similar application with information on Melbourne's trains.
Transit Sydney is selling several dozen copies per day — an encouraging result for Singh, who acknowledged it needs additional functionality and was testing the waters before spending additional time and effort developing the application.
Users are clamouring for more functionality — including weekend timetables and live-updated information on track works and cancellations — but Singh has been planning on adding those enhancements in a future version. "I eventually got it to a point where for most people it's usable, and if you're a weekday commuter you can use it," he says.
Yet within days of its 18 February release, Singh received a cease and desist notice from Rail Corporation NSW, the government body that administers Sydney's CityRail network.
"I advise that copyright in all CityRail timetables is owned by RailCorp," said the email, which has been seen by ZDNet.com.au. "Any use of these timetables in a manner which breaches copyright by a third party can only occur through the grant of a suitable licence by RailCorp."
The notice came as a surprise to Singh, who believed that timetable information about public transport systems was public information and pointed to a wealth of similar App Store applications providing timetables for train systems in Melbourne, Perth, Singapore, Paris, London, and even another application with the same Sydney information.
As a government body, RailCorp information is protected by Crown copyright, a contentious provision in copyright law that has recently been used to block attempts to access information on the location of Victoria's bushfires and even seemingly innocuous information as the locations of public toilets.
At this stage, it is not possible for RailCorp to grant third-party developers access to our internal passenger information systems.
RailCorp spokesperson Paul Rea
A 2005 inquiry by the Copyright Law Review Committee recommended relaxation of Crown copyright provisions to allow for more easy access to public interest information, but those changes have yet to be implemented and RailCorp is standing by its challenge.
"RailCorp's primary concern here is that our customers receive accurate, up-to-date timetable information," RailCorp spokesperson Paul Rea explained. "This includes details of service interruptions, special event services, track work and other changes."
"At this stage, it is not possible for RailCorp to grant third-party developers access to our internal passenger information systems. As such, any third-party CityRail timetable application would contain inaccuracies and have the potential to mislead our customers."
Asked under what terms a developer could get access to a "suitable licence" as per the email sent to Singh, Rea said such licences are currently unavailable to developers while RailCorp firms up its own mobile development strategy. A timetable application for iPhone and other mobile users is expected later in the year, he said, although it was not yet clear whether this would be provided for free or at a price.
Singh is taking a wait-and-see stance for now while he gets further legal advice on the situation or a formal legal letter of demand from RailCorp, and is considering escalating the dispute over availability of public information to the office of NSW Ministry of Transport or the NSW Ombudsman.