Map Traps: Intentional Mapping Errors to Combat Plagiarism

Rebecca Maxwell

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When cartographers create maps, it is usually with the intention of being as accurate as possible. After all, when humans consult maps, they want to know where an exact location is and how they can get there. Although technology and online crowdsourcing has largely reduced the purpose of trap streets, your maps might still contain a few intentional mistakes here and there.

What are map traps?

Mapmakers have been known to slip in what are called trap streets, fictional streets inserted on a map which the intention of fighting plagiarism. Map traps are also referred to as “copyright Easter eggs.” These map traps may be oddly shaped features that don’t exist in the real world, or a name of a feature intentionally spelled wrong.

Plagiarism, the unlawful copying of another’s work, has long been a problem for mapmakers. Producing maps is an extremely demanding process, and it requires painstaking efforts to get all of the details right including correct spellings and locations.

It is no wonder that map companies want to protect their work from others, and the practice of maps traps came from this motivation. If a violator of copyright produces another map with the same fake street or town, they might be guilty of piracy.

Creating fake content to catch copyright infringement is not a new practice

Nevertheless, the practice of creating fake entities in reference materials is not a new tradition. There are examples of fictitious items in encyclopedias as far back as the 1800s. In 1903, The Music Lover’s Encyclopedia contained a definition for the phony word zzxjoanw.

As recently as 1975, the New Oxford American Dictionary provided a counterfeit description of esquivalience. The practice became so widely known that anti-plagiarists adopted their own terms to verbalize their actions.

Trap streets in cartography

Mapmakers created their own version of this method with trap streets which are then sometimes passed along.

The well-known map company Rand McNally included map traps until the 1980s. One such example of a trap street is La Taza Drive in Upland, California.

Besides inventing streets that do not exist in reality, a map trap might misrepresent a street depicting a main artery as a narrow lane or adding odd curves.

The good news is that these fake streets are inserted in ways that cut down on problems for users.

OpenStreetMap warns its contributors about map traps

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world, a project that relies heavily on contributions from volunteers. In order to help its contributors avoid duplicating cartographic content that is a map trap, OpenStreetMap maintains a wiki page that provides an explanation and examples of copyright Easter eggs and asks contributors not to “reference maps when entering data.”

Fake towns on maps

Map traps are not only generated in the form of fake streets but can also be entire towns.

Deemed paper towns, they appear on maps but are not actually present where they should be. In the 1930s mapmaker Otto Lindberg and his assistant Ernest Alpers fashioned a phony town called Agloe in upstate New York. No such town existed, yet a few years later, Rand McNally released their own map of New York with Agloe on it.

Similarly, a fake English town called Argleton appeared on Google Maps up until 2009. Google stated that this was the result of human error but the town can be found in print forms of maps from Tele Atlas.

The Ordnance Survey versus the Automobile Association

After a protracted battle, in 2001 the Automobile Association paid out a £20 million settlement to the Ordnance Survey after it was caught plagiarizing maps to produce travel guides.  

The Ordnance Survey was able to prove its maps had been copied because it had embedded  “fingerprints”, small deliberate errors into its maps.  The AA eventually admitted to copying maps covering 64 British towns and cities.

The difficulty with map traps for cartographers it is that it is a hassle to prove plagiarism by competitors. Moreover, in Feist v. Rural Telephone Company, the United States Supreme Court ruled that facts on maps are not intellectual property and, therefore, not eligible for copyright protections.

Another court case determined that false facts represented as true are not guarded under copyright laws.  In Alexandria Drafting Co. v. Amsterdam (1997) it was ruled that “the existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact.”

On top of that, technology and open source maps are eliminating the need for map traps. Mapmaking companies are relying more and more on collaborative projects where anyone with Internet access can contribute and monitor maps for accuracy.

One of the most popular of these is OpenStreetMap that emphasizes local knowledge of the world. Notwithstanding, it is wise to consult your map with care. You just might find yourself the victim of a map trap someday.

References

“An Imaginary Town Becomes Real, Then Not. True Story.” http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/03/18/290236647/an-imaginary-town-becomes-real-then-not-true-story

“Copyright Traps.” http://www.maproomblog.com/2005/11/copyright_traps.php

“Trap Street.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trap_street

“Trap Streets: The Crafty Trick Mapmakers Use to Fight Plagiarism” http://theweek.com/article/index/241967/trap-streets-the-crafty-trick-mapmakers-use-to-fight-plagiarism

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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on GISLounge.com

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