A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do maps have "copyright traps" to permit detection of unauthorized copies?

August 16, 1991

Dear Cecil:

Is it true that, as my father says, companies that produced maps (Rand McNally, etc.) make up some little bitty towns and dot them around their map design so they can tell if anyone copies it? Has anyone ever gotten lost trying to find one of those made-up towns?

Cecil replies:

You are talking about "copyright traps."  They are devious.  They exist.  In a world of high-level conspiracies that are completely imaginary, it's a relief to discover one that's not.

For the record, the folks at Rand McNally swear on a stack of road atlases that they would never use copyright traps. However, they admit a small regional map company called Champion they bought a while back did put a copyright trap into a map on at least one occasion. The trap consisted of a nonexistent street stuck into a map of a medium-sized city in New York state — a fact that was gleefully revealed on a network news show.

On investigating, Rand McNally found some smart-aleck cartographer (and you know what a wild and crazy bunch they are) had gone ahead and done the wicked deed on his own. Whether the guy committed other cartographic sabotage I don't know. But the possibility of additional fakery does exist — and may for a while, since checking every detail of a map is a huge job. Not that I'd get into a panic about it, but on your next road trip you might want to bring a flashlight just in case.

Nowheresville

Dear Cecil:

I thought you'd like to know a little more about the often-discussed but never officially acknowledged practice of putting copyright traps on commercial maps. The closest I've ever come to finding such a trap is the fictional town of Westdale, which appears on the 1982 Rand McNally Road Atlas map of metro Chicago. By 1986 it had disappeared. I also enclose some illustrations from Mark Monmonier's book How to Lie with Maps, which show some phony towns added to a map of Ohio as a prank.

Cecil replies:

It happened to Brigadoon, why not Westdale? Although I have to say the industrial suburbs west of Chicago seem like an unpromising locale for an enchanted vanishing village. Actually, the folks at Rand McNally claim it was all an honest mistake. They say a real estate developer submitted a plan for a community called Westdale that was approved but never built. Somehow this found its way into the Rand McNally road atlas and years went by before anybody noticed.

This story is slightly fishy; the area in question, though unincorporated, was built up decades ago. But a Rand McNally spokesman reasonably inquires, "Why would we put in copyright traps and then not tell anybody they were there?" If one assumes the main value of traps is deterrence, good question.

Errors of this sort apparently happen fairly often. In his book Mark Monmonier shows several "paper streets" — planned but not built — on an official map of Syracuse, New York.

Of course, when it comes to map errors, you can't overlook the possibility of a little good-natured sabotage. Monmonier mentions two prank towns appearing in an official map of Michigan, the edge of which showed portions of the neighboring state of Ohio. Some diehard Wolverine fan in the mapmaking department decided that would be a good place to put the nonexistent towns of "goblu" (Go Blue, get it?) and "beatosu," referring to the University of Michigan's traditional rival Ohio State. If you had to spend all day staring at squiggly lines and benday dots, you'd need some way to let off steam, too.

Map traps: The smoking gun at last

Dear Cecil:

Perhaps the enclosed clipping will put an end to your agnosticism about map companies inventing fictitious geographic detail for copyright purposes.

Cecil replies:

Reader Carlson encloses a clipping from the March 22, 1981 Los Angeles Times about the Thomas Brothers map company, which publishes maps of southern California. The article says:

"[Thomas Brothers vice president Barry Elias admits] that the company sprinkles fictitious names throughout its guides. …`We put them in for copyright reasons,' he said. `If someone is reproducing one of our maps (as with a photocopier) and selling them, we can prove an infringement.'

"Of course, the make-believe streets are little ones. The mythical avenues normally run no longer than a block, dead end, and are shown with broken lines (as though they are under construction).

"Elias revealed that the guides for San Bernadino and Riverside counties have the heaviest concentration of fictitious streets — `between 100 and 200. … We try to come up with names that would fit in with the area [such as La Taza Drive and Loma Drive]. … Spanish sounding names are very big now.'"

So that accounts for all those lost-looking folks you see around LA. The grim effects of drugs? Naah, they just have Thomas maps.

Come to think of it, they look pretty lost in Wisconsin, too

Dear Cecil:

Looking at a recent map of Madison I noticed that it showed a friend's house was located in a city park, and didn't show another park at all. So I called the map company [Badger Map, Wonder Lake, Illinois], and they were quite straightforward in pointing out that errors are intentionally introduced to protect the copyright on their maps.

Cecil replies:

So there we have it.  And now I may as well come clean.  Every time I publish a book, a few subverters of public order write in to point out what they claim are mistakes.  Mistakes, my arse.  Copyright traps.

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