Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Can You Copyright Facts?

This from reader Nick C:
After launching the Transit Sydney iPhone application with Sydney train timetables, its developer received a cease and desist letter saying that the use of the timetables is a breach of copyright. In Australia, this may technically be true, but the developer is considering disputing the claim.
Do people really have rights to a schedule? It's a timetable not a copyrighted creative work. And why do you want such bad publicity? They seem to do it a little differently down under:
Anyone who's familiar with US copyright law will think "wait, you can't copyright facts," which is where the twist comes in. Australia has something called "Crown copyright" that essentially says that certain materials published by the government are copyrighted by the government. The CityRail timetables come from Rail Corporation New South Wales (RailCorp), which is owned by the government.
Reports now say that the rail system has been ordered to work with the developer. But this should have never been a problem in the first place.


arcady said...

Crown Copyright isn't really the main issue here, though it's part of it. And while I think that in most places, you can't really copyright facts, you can copyright collections of facts, which is meant to compensate people for the effort that goes into collecting them. But I don't think this is really the case with railroad timetables. They're really an artifact of the operation: you need an internal timetable to run a railroad, and it's not that much extra effort to format it nicely and publish it for the customers.

Alon Levy said...

In the US, you can't copyright collections of facts, either. US copyright law gives rights only to people who create things, not to people who collate other people's creations. Other countries are different, though - e.g. in Britain, case law does protect collections of facts sometimes.