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Transit agencies ponder, to iPod or not to iPod

William Bright formats public transit maps for iPod. Some would consider that a great idea. Some transit officials think its just a copyright violation.

Here's an idea for a public transit agency - make subway and bus maps available for display on an iPod, so that transit customers can quickly and easily figure out how to get where they're going. It's not an idea created by government - New Yorker William Bright thought it up and he's been making iPod versions of transit maps available on his website, IPodSubwayMaps.com, reports Wired News.

So as a government official you have two options. You can think, "Hey, that's a really great and cool idea, just the sort of thing we should be encouraging so that people can make use of taxpayer-funded information in ways that work for them." Or you could say, as officials in New York and San Francisco said, "Maps are our intellectual property, which can be monetized and we don't want people pirating them."

MTA, it seems, is cash-strapped and intent on plumbing its (or is it New Yorkers') intellectual property for what its worth. Relates Wired News:

The New York Times reported in June that the MTA has begun registering its colorful route symbols as trademarks and has sent more than 30 cease-and-desist letters to businesses that had been using the route symbols to sell such items as bagels, perfume, T-shirts and tote bags.

The financially strapped MTA has a licensing department that has approved about 25 product lines, including neckties and coffee mugs, the Times reported.

In San Francisco, BART sent a cease and desist letter to Bright, saying ""There is a widespread belief that materials published by public agencies such as BART are in the public domain. This belief is incorrect." BART in fact is planning on issuing their own iPod map of the system.

Bright has been re-creating his own versions of subway maps to get around the copyright problem, since information about routes is probably not subject to copyright even though the agencies' maps themselves are.

Agencies would do well to find ways to work with folks with good ideas instead of just turning loose the lawyers.