Who Owns the Map?

ghost town

This is an old, but truly fascinating article from Atlas Obscura we came across in the last couple of weeks. It’s about the historical practice of cartographers putting “trap streets” into their maps as a sort of cartographic watermark. The idea is that the mapmaker would include in their maps a fake street in order to catch fakes of their maps, since any map with such an obscure mistake would have to be copied. This would be fascinating all by itself, but the practice has found its way into the digital age since many of the maps digital mapmakers like Google Maps/Earth use to make their digital maps are full of these trap streets. One of the coolest examples is probably that of the “phantom town of Argleton, England, which appeared on Google Maps as recently as 2009.”

“Online listings showed the town as having jobs, real estate, weather forecasts, and even a single scene. But no one had ever set foot there, because it doesn’t exist. Google has since removed the town from their listings, and though many speculate that it was a town-wide version of a trap street, the company wouldn’t reveal if its inclusion was a deliberate attempt to catch thieves.”

One of the more interesting questions that arises out of this phenomenon is that in the digital age ownership of the map isn’t contested so much as the programming behind the representation of the data on the map. The Google Maps API is so useful and cheap that it’s practically open source at this point, and if you prefer to truly be free then there are plenty of other options for open sourced mapping technology. Where, even 20 years ago, the actual depiction of the map was more akin to a work of art and was thus subject to copyright, making goofy things like trap streets necessary. But in the age of satellite imagery and down-to-the-foot cartographic accuracy, the common view is that the map is the map is the map. The differentiator is what goes on the map, how it gets there, and who has the ability to change the information. At this point, society has largely accepted that there is but one map and it is public property…it’s the people and the mounds of data they create that's up for grabs.