Government should not own copyright

I’m a supporter of copyright (and we can quibble till the bar closes about how much and how long). But I believe that government should not be allowed to own copyright; the people own its copyright and should be able to use material created at public expense however the people damned well choose. That’s why it’s appalling that transit officials are suing over the copyright of subway maps. What the hell do they think their job is? And who do they think owns the subways and the maps? We do.

  • Skate

    I thought that in most cases all government produced work was public domain? Or is that just Federal documents?

    What ever the case, I would agree that all government work should be in the public domain and that all contractors providing IP as part of government contracts need to ensure that the resulting work is handed over free and clear to the government so that it can be fully public domain.

  • jeff m

    Actually, no. The subways are owned by an entity which is not you. The entity is managed by individuals appointed by elected officials. You, if you are in the appropriate district, get to vote for one of the elected officials who influences the appointment.

    The subway entity undoubtedly has bondholders and creditors who have extended credit to it based on the assurance of the entity’s managers that the subway would be run in a business-like way. Protecting copyrights is a generally accepted business practice.

    It may not be a good business strategy in this case to restrict the distribution of subway maps. However, YOU do not get to make that decision.

  • Skate

    “The subways are owned by an entity which is not you…However, YOU do not get to make that decision.”

    This may be true, but that doesn’t mean that it is right.

    I’m also against pseudo private entities which are actually government entities with special privileges. Copyrighting public information like a subway map is unconscionable and an abuse of copyright–regardless of whether it may be legal.

  • Andy Freeman

    If they rely on the govt teat to make payroll or to buy equipment….

  • Then this: Government should make it a condition of such a franchise to release all information and copyright to the public.

  • Hunter McDaniel

    Amen, Jeff.

    Same goes for weather information, government funded research reports, etc. We’ve paid for this stuff once, I’m damned if I an understand why we should have to pay for it again.

  • Ed Poinsett

    Unless government studies or reports are classified to begin with, there should be no restriction on their reproduction and/or distribution by the public.

  • Right of Center

    Does an artist paid with an NEA grant loose the copyright on his own work? He is an ‘entity’ paid to create with government dollars. (as usual) your off-the-cuff snarking sounds reasonable but do you know anything about the (uhm) actual *law* in this case? (too much detail to have to *read*, I suppose).

    Is it too much to ask that you be (you know) informed before you blather?

    Rush Limbaugh II?

  • roger tang

    “Does an artist paid with an NEA grant loose the copyright on his own work? He is an ‘entity’ paid to create with government dollars. ”

    Well, it depends.

    Much of the time, the artist is paid for a time specific, location specific presentation. And much of the time, the grant is for operational funds (in the case of organizations). I think NEA grants are drawn much more narrowly than you think…

  • Does an artist paid with an NEA grant loose the copyright on his own work?

    He should.

    In the first place, government has no business subsidizing artists. But if they are, let the artists take the public dime and do their art for the sake of doing their art, out of love. And the people who finance it own it.

    All you’re doing is advocating for somebody to have their cake and eat mine, too.

    Where, exactly, is this center you’re “right of” located? Havana?

  • John

    A lot of T-shirts and related items were sold in the late 1970s in New York bearing the design of the then-current New York City subway map. It was based on the London Underground’s map design and was stylishly trendy, but riddled with a nurmber of horrendus mapping mistakes because it put style oer function (Broadway being west of Eighth Ave. at 50th Street, for instance). Nevertheless, people who didn’t actually need the map to get anywhere liked the way it looked, and the folks selling those items were able to cash in.

    That eventually got the MTA into the marketing business itself, with the maps and route designations being the most obvious items up for sale, while offering other things, such as route signs from scrapped subway cars, also at the MTA stores and over the Internet.

    But it’s only in the last two years that the lawyers for the system — or the folks who have the marketing deals with the MTA who have been pushing to claim excusive rights to the map images and route “bullets”. They went so far as to sue a bagel shop near the F train stop in the Gowanus Canal section of Brooklyn for using the route designation bullet in its store sign. Most people at the time that story ran thought the MTA was being ridiculously intrusive and acting like a bully, but obviously, they intend on making their money off licensing (which I would probably have less objection to, if it was funding the actual cost of making the maps or other subway items. But the agency spends like a drunken sailor, so whatever money they do gain from this is just going to be wasted on needless frills or perks for the top staff).

  • jeff m

    Andy Freeman: “If they rely on the govt teat to make payroll or to buy equipment…. ”

    Jeff Jarvis: “Then this: Government should make it a condition of such a franchise to release all information and copyright to the public. ”

    But how many other entities does the government subsidize? Should they all lose their copyrights? How about colleges – who should own their research patents and copyrights if they receive public assistance? How about other schools. How about NPR or anything funded by the federal arts budget?

    Don’t these lead us to a discussion of the degree of public aid necessary before the government should own the copyright?

    I suspect that the names of the subway and locations of the subway lines are in the public domain. But the guy in question used the ‘actual likeness’ of a map published by the government rather than creating his own based on the same information. I’m guessing that is where the hair got split on this one.

  • jeff m

    Apologies to RightofCenter. I did not read your remarks before I posted my last comment. I see that you have already made the point.

  • The subways aren’t a business. If they were, they’d make money. The subways are the asset of the people. They are subsidized and paid for by the people. There is no reason for the subways to hold copyright on the subway maps. The subways should be eager for more ways to distribute them at no cost rather than spending more of our money to print damned maps. The rights to such public information should be handed over to the public free and clear.

  • jeff m

    So that settles it then.

  • More than that, it’s likely that the cease-and-desist orders in this case would not hold up in court. You can’t copyright information or facts – only the expression of them in an original work. To quote Wendy Seltzer over at Copyfight:

    “Since copyright protects only “original expression,” not facts or ideas, it offers thin protection to maps. The transit agencies can’t copyright the locations of stations, their names, or the colors and symbols by which the public identifies them. A new map may look very much like the old ones without copying any copyrightable expression. So long as it’s clear these are unofficial maps, the trademark “confusion” dissipates as well.”

  • Jeff, I gotta admit you have a lot of populist opinions.

  • John

    Actually, the subways once were a business, three-quarters of a century ago. But the owners of the two subway companies in New York agreed to a stupid deal to lock the fare at 5 cents, because they were afraid the city would try and lower the rate and take away their profit. After World War I, when the U.S. was hit with a bout of inflation, the nickel fare went from being a cash cow to being a millstone around the two companies’ necks. One went bankrupt in the early 1920s before struggling through post-receivership, while the other struggled for 20 years until Mayor LaGuardia completed a plan begun in the 1920s by Mayor Hylan to have the city built its own subway system and then buy out the other two companies, because they knew government could operate a business far more efficently than a money-grubbing private company could (stop laughing out there!).

    Anyway, virtually no new lines have been built in New York City since municipal takeover, and a number of elevated lines that would have been useful today were torn down with the promise that a modern underground replacement was just around the corner (and a few years after the city took over, they of course started raising the fare to meet the expenses that killed off the private companies). So based on that, maybe they should just privatize the system again, and give the new owners royalties on subway route bullets. It couldn’t be much worse than what’s happened over the past 65 years.

  • Marina Architect

    I like this topic. I need more information to support a position.

  • Someone bought my infant son a cute shirt from the MTA that had a subway map on it. If selling such stuff can theoretically defray the cost of running the system, I am all for it. But in general, I don’t believe in intellectual property rights.

    The subway system an “asset”? More like a liability of the people.

    This is why government should be as small as possible. Everything gov’t touches becomes a political football, grossly inefficient, and impossible to modify or cut back.

    “Not making money” doesn’t preclude an entity from being a business. lost money for years – as do countless other companies.

  • What a crazy thing to do.

  • Way

    There are lots of other subway maps and mass transit maps online, such as: