Papertowns: How Cartographers Cleverly Protect Their Copyrights


July 11, 2018

By: Matthew G. Miller

In the 1930s, mapmakers Otto G. Lindberg and his assistant Ernest Alpers, assigned the anagram of their initials, “Algoe”, to a dirt crossroad in Colchester, a little town in Delaware County, New York. The fictitious “paper town”, later featured in John Green’s novel titled Paper Towns, was designed as a copyright trap to catch infringers who, if caught, would not be able to explain the inclusion of the fictitious town in their map as an innocent coincidence.

Fictitious entries like Algoe are quite common, not only in cartography, but also when creating reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps, and directories:  other information are left deliberately incorrect. For example, directories use wrong names, directories use fake words, and maps have non-existent locations. Map companies use these made-up information as a unique signature and a device for detecting plagiarism and protect copyright.

With all the time and effort put into compiling information and making maps, it makes sense that map companies would want legal protection for their investments. This begs the question, are maps protected by copyrights?

In most countries, the answer is yes. In 1886, the Berne Convention, an international agreement governing copyright law, established a definition for “literary and artistic works” to include, “illustrations, maps, plans, sketches, and three dimensional works relative to geography, topography, architecture or science” (emphasis added).

The language of the international agreement intends to provide a framework for each country to interpret accordingly for itself. In the United States, Section 101 of the U.S Copyright Act defines these works to include: “two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic and applied art, photographs, prints and art productions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models and technical drawings, including architectural plans” (emphasis added).


The differences in copyright protection between the U.S and European legal systems manifests in various ways.


The Scope of Copyright Protection

While most countries protect copyrights, what rights one will enjoy with the copyright is rather different depending on which part of the world they live in. What copyrights means for a cartographer is drastically different in Europe compared in the United States. Copyrights usually consists of two kinds of rights: 1) economic rights and 2) moral rights.

According to WIPO, economic rights allow “the rights owner to derive financial reward from the use of his work by others”. Economic rights protect the economic value of the copyright, such as that of reproduction, transmission, distribution etc. In the United States, copyrights focus on protecting economic rights. Copyright is first and foremost seen as an ownership right, which one can trade and transfer to others.

In contrast, the European Continental System values copyrights as predominantly moral rights, which “ protect the non-economic interests of the author”, namely, the personal and reputational rights of the author. According to international standards, moral rights includes 1) rights of paternity: author’s right to have their name or to use a pseudonym on the work 2) rights of integrity: author’s right to object any change to their work that may harm their reputation as the author.

Accordingly, trap streets or paper towns in maps are protectable by copyrights in the European Law, but do not enjoy the same protection in the United States. In the federal District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania decision in 1994, Alexandria Drafting Co. v. Andrew H. Amsterdam dba Franklin Maps, the federal court ruled that “the existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact”.


Requirements to Obtain Copyrights

In America, would be owners of copyrights will have to follow a series of formalities performed before the Copyright Office. According to U.S. Copyrights law, copyrights covers “creations”, which have three requirements:


  1. Fixation: the work must be fixated in some tangible medium of expression (paper, canvas, etc.)
  2. Originality: only original work can be protected for copyrights.
  3. Minimal Creativity: hard work is not enough to claim copyrights. One must demonstrate minimal creativity.


In contrast, the European Continental System only requires originality. If one creates something original, she or he will automatically enjoy copyright protection without official registration.

Nowadays, every map maker has their own intellectual property strategy to organize and design their maps, this is done through the use of legends, symbols, colors and other features that allows their work to be copyright protected in most countries around the world.

For mapmakers and, more broadly, reference creators, intellectual property protection is no less important than those who are in the industries of creative art or innovative technology. Understanding the scope and methods of copyrights protection may help companies strategize and improve their products, whether it be maps or other related works.