City Design and Intellectual Property

Is the layout of a town or city protected under IP law?

For instance, if I were to get a map of Podunk, change the name of the town and the names of most of the streets, could I write a novel based on that map? Could I publish my map within the novel?

Naturally, the names of individual businesses, government agencies, and private citizens would be either changed or entirely fictional.

The original map, though, is almost certainly under copyright by the creators, so could I just re-draw it by hand (changing this and that for dramatic purposes), or would that be considered a derivative work?

Issues with the original physical map aside, could the good people on the Podunk City Council come after me for infringing on their… what? trademark? copyright?

Grrr… missed the edit limit.
Specifically, for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I want to base the town in my novel on my Dad’s hometown, though I don’t want it to be in the same state or have the same people living there. I also want it to be similar in structure and design to how it was when he was growing up there in the 20s and 30s. The earliest map of the area I can find is from the 40s. If it matters, the town no longer exists, as it merged with other small towns in the area and was incorporated as a new city.

Changing the name of a city for reasons of fiction is common. Ed McBain took New York City, turned it on its side and gave the boroughs and landmarks new names for his 87th precinct series, but otherwise it was NYC as everybody knew it.

That last bit, as everybody knew it, is usually the kicker, at least for people. Many cases have been lost when a person claimed that he or she was recognizable and slandered albeit under another name.

I don’t believe that cities or municipal entities can be slandered in the same way. (See: Newark, Detroit, Hollywood, etc.) Businesses can so it takes more than a mere transparent name shift, just as with a person. Of course, you can say positive things as much as you like. (Positive being in the eye of the beholder.)

The physical expression of a map is copyrightable. The underlying city grid is not. Redrawing a map would make it fair. Or you could use a map generated by a government body. Although there are some exceptions for more technical maps, a simple grid map you found on any .gov site should be in the public domain.

Bottom line. As long as you use fictional personalities and draw your own map you should be fine.

Disclaimer. Although I’m familiar with copyright I am not an kind of a lawyer and these are general philosophical musings on a legally tricky subject.

Government maps are normally public domain? I did not know that, either. Thank you!

US federal publications are normally public domain within the United States. I’m not an expert on copyright law, but I don’t think you can generalise from that to publications of other levels of government within the US, to other national governments, or to rights in US federal government publications outside the US. (And the latter point may be relevant if you want to publish outside the US).

But that’s only relevant to copyright in specific maps. The street layout of cities does not seem to me to be copyrightable, if only because it’s not a normal sort of publication or literary or artistic work. If it were, then you’d need permission from the city before taking an aerial photograph.