Mapping our future

Do the standard legal rules still apply in a world in which maps have essentially become collections of digital data?

Google Maps (Theodor-Heuss-Platz) (photo credit: Courtesy)
Google Maps (Theodor-Heuss-Platz)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mapping technology has inserted itself into our everyday lives, even to the point of becoming indispensable. Yet our legal framework for maps has changed little since the days of the British Mandate.
The Mandate government issued the first official notice concerning copyrights in maps on February 20, 1937 – 77 years ago. David Yudelovich, a trailblazing student of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda wanted to include some government maps in a book about the history of Rishon Lezion. The British, organized as always, took this as an opportunity to issue a regulation. The regulation included detailed instructions about how government maps could be used and how royalties would be calculated and paid.
Mapping technology has advanced enormously since the days of Yudelovich.
The Internet immediately provides the details of any location.
Countless websites and start-ups use mapping technology to provide directions and show locations. Only several years ago, getting lost meant scrutinizing a paper map, but now Waze can effortlessly show us the way. Driverless cars, when they do arrive, will use these digital maps to show passengers to their destinations. The map has become less of single physical graphic and more of a collection of data to be used, displayed and manipulated.
Even as technology has changed dramatically, the law seems to have remained more or less the same since the days of Yudelovich. Israeli copyright law, for example, still categorizes a map as an “artistic work” protected by copyright law. Copying that map without the owner’s permission can still result in a copyright lawsuit. The copyright law of other jurisdictions generally looks at maps in the same way.
But this superficial inertia hides tremendous ferment in how businesses market and sell mapping technology and, concurrently, how contracts for mapping technology are now structured.
Google launched its mapping technology in February 2005, and originally these maps were simply a digital atlas. Within a few months, a San Francisco engineer had taken apart Google’s computer code and created an application to help find apartment rentals by displaying apartment locations. Google could have sued the engineer for infringing Google’s copyright.
Instead, Google hired that engineer and opened its map application to similar innovations.
Today, map functionality is freely available to a broad range of websites and applications. Google doesn’t generally profit directly from the sale of the maps, but rather from the increased Internet traffic searching for these maps. Waze uses a similar business model. It provides maps and navigation for free to all users and plans to support itself through location based advertising.
There are even open-source models for providing mapping technology. A British organization provides map data for free, with the one condition that improvements to the maps must be contributed back to the organization.
In some countries this open source map data may be competing with Google’s.
We use maps very differently than Yudelovich did 77 years ago, but more importantly we also market, advertise and sell maps in ways that Yudelovich would never have imagined. Do the standard legal rules still apply in a world in which maps have essentially become collections of digital data? Do these rules still work in a world in which users are expected to manipulate and add content to maps? And what about the legal liability of mapmakers – will they be responsible for the mistakes of the driverless cars? These are all important questions, and the future is arriving faster than our answers.
Eli Greenbaum is a lawyer at Yigal Arnon & Co. who specializes