Copyright Traps

Publishers frequently use “copyright traps” to prove that someone plagiarized their work. Without evidence of the actual act of plagiarism, it’s difficult to prove that someone publishing a rival phone book, dictionary or encyclopedia didn’t just copy material wholesale from yours, so they insert bits of wholly fictitious information that, if it turns up in the competition’s pages, can be used as proof. Because we’re talking about reference works, these false entries are usually pretty innocuous: you have to look these things up in order to find them, and chances are you’re not looking up something that doesn’t exist.

Copyright traps came into the public eye again earlier this year in a New Yorker article about a fake entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary — namely, “esquivalence.” But copyright traps are apparently a frequent enough occurence in maps as well. It’s not just a matter of creating fake streets, rivers, buildings or even towns, although that does happen; it could be a river shown bending one way rather than the other, or a non-existent cul de sac, that proves the copyright holder’s case.

There have been a number of reports and anecdotes about copyright traps in maps: see this collection of messages from the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup and this page from the Straight Dope; as well, the comments on Languagehat’s entry on “esquivalence” have a few map-related examples. Two trends emerge from these links: many people think that copyright traps are urban legends; and map publishers themselves “officially” deny that copyright traps exist in their maps.

Except when they don’t. OpenStreetMap’s wiki has a Copyright Easter Eggs entry that includes a scan of a 1999 Daily Telegraph article, the subject of which was that the Automobile Association had been caught plagiarizing the Ordnance Survey’s maps through the use of such copyright traps (via Things Magazine).

I’d be very interested in seeing links to other material about copyright traps in maps. Apparently there’s some material on this subject in Mark Monmonier’s book, How to Lie with Maps; must investigate.