Map Traps: Intentional Mapping Errors to Combat Plagiarism

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When cartographers create maps, it is usually with the intention of being as accurate as possible. After all, when humans consult maps, they want to know where an exact location is and how they can get there. In the past, though, mapmakers have been known to slip in what are called trap streets, fictional streets inserted on a map which the intention of fighting plagiarism. Although technology and online crowdsourcing has largely reduced the purpose of trap streets, your maps might still contain a few mistakes here and there.

Plagiarism, the unlawful copying of another’s work, has long been a problem for mapmakers. Producing maps is an extremely demanding process, and it requires painstaking efforts to get all of the details right including correct spellings and locations. It is no wonder that map companies want to protect their work from others, and the practice of maps traps came from this motivation. If a violator of copyright produces another map with the same fake street or town, they might be guilty of piracy.

Nevertheless, the practice of creating fake entities in reference materials is not a new tradition. There are examples of fictitious items in encyclopedias as far back as the 1800s. In 1903, The Music Lover’s Encyclopedia contained a definition for the phony word zzxjoanw. As recently as 1975, the New Oxford American Dictionary provided a counterfeit description of esquivalience. The practice became so widely known that anti-plagiarists adopted their own terms to verbalize their actions.

Trap Streets

Mapmakers created their own version of this method with trap streets which are then sometimes passed along. The well-known map company Rand McNally included map traps until the 1980s. One such example of a trap street is La Taza Drive in Upland, California. Besides inventing streets that do not exist in reality, a map trap might misrepresent a street depicting a main artery as a narrow lane or adding odd curves. The good news is that these fake streets are inserted in ways that cut down on problems for users.

Fake Towns

Map traps are not only generated in the form of fake streets but can also be entire towns. Deemed paper towns, they appear on maps but are not actually present where they should be. In the 1930s mapmaker Otto Lindberg and his assistant Ernest Alpers fashioned a phony town called Agloe in upstate New York. No such town existed, yet a few years later, Rand McNally released their own map of New York with Agloe on it. Similarly, a fake English town called Argleton appeared on Google Maps up until 2009. Google stated that this was the result of human error but the town can be found in print forms of maps from Tele Atlas.

The Ordnance Survey Versus The Automobile Association

After a protracted battler, in 2001 the Automobile Association paid out a £20 million settlement to the Ordnance Survey after it was caught plagiarizing maps to produce travel guides.  The Ordnance Survey was able to prove its maps had been copied because it had embedded  “fingerprints”, small deliberate errors into its maps.  The AA eventually admitted to copying maps covering 64 British towns and cities.

The top map is by the Ordnance Survey of the UK town of Basinstoke.  The bottom map shows the AA version of the same locale.  From a scanned newspaper  article about the case.

The top map is by the Ordnance Survey of the UK town of Basinstoke. The bottom map shows the AA version of the same locale. From a scanned newspaper article published in The Telegraph on August 1999 about the case.

The difficulty with map traps for cartographers it is that it is a hassle to prove plagiarism by competitors. Moreover, in Feist v. Rural Telephone Company, the United States Supreme Court ruled that facts on maps are not intellectual property and, therefore, not eligible for copyright protections. Another court case determined that false facts represented as true are not guarded under copyright laws.  In Alexandria Drafting Co. v. Amsterdam (1997) it was ruled that “the existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact.”

On top of that, technology and open source maps are eliminating the need for map traps. Mapmaking companies are relying more and more on collaborative projects where anyone with Internet access can contribute and monitor maps for accuracy. One of the most popular of these is Open Street Map that emphasizes local knowledge of the world. Notwithstanding, it is wise to consult your map with care. You just might find yourself the victim of a map trap someday. 

References

“An Imaginary Town Becomes Real, Then Not. True Story.” http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/03/18/290236647/an-imaginary-town-becomes-real-then-not-true-story

“Copyright Traps.” http://www.maproomblog.com/2005/11/copyright_traps.php

“Trap Street.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trap_street

“Trap Streets: The Crafty Trick Mapmakers Use to Fight Plagiarism” http://theweek.com/article/index/241967/trap-streets-the-crafty-trick-mapmakers-use-to-fight-plagiarism



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