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THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET OF Apple Computer's popular iPod music players is that they are frequently filled with songs downloaded illegally from the Internet. So it's not surprising that iPods would be at the center of a battle over copyrighted works being downloaded for free.
What is surprising, though, is that the battle is over subway maps.
William Bright, a website designer who works for an adult-oriented online magazine, shrunk the digital maps of subway systems in Los Angeles and 11 other cities so they could be displayed on an iPod's 2-inch color screen. He started posting the maps on the Web in August, saying he wanted to share them with other iPod owners.
On Sept. 14, however, the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority used the site's feedback form to send him a "nastygram."
"You must cease and desist immediately," the note from the authority's senior associate counsel said. "Take the NYC subway map off your website and confirm to me by e-mail that you will not do this again."
One week later, the manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District's website also demanded that Bright stop offering a map of the BART system.
After lecturing him about BART's copyrighted map, logo and "other BART intellectual property," the manager said unauthorized uses were not allowed because they might mislead people.
Bright then asked cities for permission to create and offer downloadable maps, and so far the Metro system in Washington, D.C., has agreed. The New York MTA, meanwhile, demanded $500.
With a bit of effort, one can justify the fuss from the New York MTA and BART over Bright's hobby.
He collects donations and a little bit of advertising revenue to cover the cost of his map site, www.ipodsubwaymaps.com, so in a sense he is using their intellectual property to line his own pockets.
But cities don't sell their subway maps, and Bright isn't selling them, either. Instead, he's saving the New York MTA and BART the expense of adapting their maps for the growing number of riders who keep iPods stuffed in their pockets or purses.
And if the maps from the New York MTA and BART have intellectual property value, it's because these systems were funded by riders and taxpayers, not private investors. The transit agencies may want to license their logos for T-shirts and baseball caps, but their maps should belong to the public.
The actions by the New York MTA and BART may be futile. Bright developed a new map of the Bay Area commuter system from scratch, and he may do the same with New York's subways, dodging the claims of infringement.
But the transit systems' mindless assertion of intellectual property rights just makes it harder for the public to take copyrights seriously, which can only fuel real Web piracy.