Has anyone encountered problems when the accidentally treated a "copyright trap" as real?

Cecil once fielded a question like this, but he didn’t answer part of the question. Are there any documented cases where a person was harmed or encountered difficulty because they relied on something they found in a map or other document and then it turned out that they were relying on a copyright trap? For example, a person thinks, “I’m low on gas. The map says there’s a town 5 miles up this road here to the left - there has to be a gas station or at least a phone or something.”, then they run out of gas in the middle of a dirt road halfway up a mountain with nary a sign of civilization 5 miles away from the highway because the map maker put the fake town there as a copyright trap assuming nobody would ever want to travel there. How about dictionaries? Has a writer ever been fired or a student given a low grade because they saw this neato word they had never heard of before and used it in their writing, not knowing the word was a copyright trap that nobody actually used?


Copyright traps are much less common than simple mistakes. Some maps carry pointless disclaimers of various kinds, but ordinary road map publishers don’t owe a duty to purchasers to be free of all errors.

Navigational charts may be a different matter, but I’m not familiar with the case law in that area.

Well the makers of trivial pursuit got caught - went to court, but eventually won - over columbo’s first name - which was a copyright trap - don’t know if that counts - but I assume it still cost them in legal fees:

A dictionary trap, if one exists, would be to catch other dictionary producers who might copy the word and definition. Any student (or other person) using a word in something like a paper they’re writing that they found in a dictionary couldn’t possibly be violating any copyright provisions. Not only would using the word be fair use as it’s an incredibly minor portion of the dictionary, it is exactly the use a dictionary is supposed to be put to. I’d assume you’d have an excellent argument that there was implied consent for you to use the word.

I have personal knowledge of 2 Rand-McNally gotcha’s:

  1. A one-block street on SF Russian Hill which didn’t exist. This made the newspaper (SF was horribly provincial in those days.

  2. A tiny town in PA was mis-named. I was working in the area and wanted a pic of something in the area - I was surprised when the “Welcome to” sign didn’t match the name on the map (and yes, I am certain of the location - only one town can be at the end of that road at the riverbank.

anyone relying on either being true would not be harmed - there is a town there, it just isn’t named what the map says it is named. Since there are no addresses on a street that doesn’t exist, few people are going to try to go there.

If someone addressed a letter to "Postmaster, fake-name, PA’, it wouldn’t get delivered. But, nowadays, they’d find out there was no zip for that town before mailing it.

People might be looking for a specific town on the map though - so they can go there. That is one thing that people use maps for - looking for the location of things. Actually, it’s sort of the main reason.

Are you sure it just didn’t have two names? Maps don’t always pick the right name when there’s a choice. Google depicts a village called “Gann” in Ohio, but everybody there calls it “Brinkhaven,” and that’s what the signs say. But the formal name on the incorporation paperwork is indeed “Gann,” so that’s what things like Census data use.

That wouldn’t work all the time anyways. Not every town has a post office with the same name as the town. (Some don’t have post offices at all, and some have post offices with different names. If you send a letter to “Postmaster, Hartford, OH” it will go to a post office at a crossroads in northeast Ohio. The incorporated village called Hartford has a post office named “Croton.” People use both names freely, but I think the only name you see as you enter the town is “Hartford.”)

I once had a street map of Pasadena, California and the surrounding towns (I probably still have it somewhere) that showed a whole area of several streets to the north east of Altadena that does not exist. I once wasted an hour or two (when I had nothing better to do) driving round looking for it.

I am not sure if this was really a copyright trap. It seems a bit elaborate for that: not just one street but several blocks in an area that is really undeveloped land. It was a “Realtor’s Map” and perhaps this was a development that was once planned but never actually got built.

I think courts neutered copyright traps in the US a couple of decades ago, so even if copyright traps were a big thing here, they aren’t really anymore.

Then there are places like this, which got planned and the roads laid out, but nothing (or next to nothing) ever got built.

Google even sent the Street View car along most of those tracks. A weird place. There are a few houses there, on what looks on the street map like a dense suburban neighbourhood, but in reality surrounded by nothing but desert.

Laymen just have no idea how many judgment calls mapmakers must make. What name should be shown for a particular street? Does this road even have a name? Is this section of pavement a street or a driveway? Do locals think of a particular area as a separate town or just a neighborhood or do they not know the name on the official plat at all? I have a whole PowerPoint that I sometimes do for people about the challenges of making street maps (I’m also one of the people quoted in the referenced SD column).

Most of what’s described in this thread sounds like paper streets, which have been officially dedicated but were never built. There are also hundreds of paper towns, with the same story: subdivided into blocks and lots, with streets dedicated to the county, but nothing ever happened and today reverted to farmland.

As noted, the 1991 Feist decision made copyright traps pointless in the US. Nearly all of what people think are traps are merely mistakes.

Can you remember the name of either one of them for me to investigate?

That may not have been a copyright trap. Paper streets are very common. On the official township map I use for work there are several streets that do no exist. They were proposed streets that never got built or the plans were modified.

I’ve seen the opposite. I have a Rand McNally road atlas and I noticed there was a town marked on it that had a question mark next to its name. I assumed it meant the mapmakers weren’t sure if the town really existed (some places identified as towns are really not much more than a crossroad) but I did consider the possibility that it was a copyright trap and the question mark was like a legal disclaimer. So I was curious.

A few months later, I was driving near the area and I detoured a few miles off my route to drive through the town. And it certainly was real. Not a big town but there definitely was a community there.

When investigating properties for tax liens, I see lots with addresses and the street was never even built so you can have whole paper communities that from the records would appear to be perfectly normal. My question is how GPS systems handle this. Could TomTom or AT&TMaps have me offroading to the theoretical 123 Partridge Lane?

That is very weird. The few houses appear to be totally randomly placed along the dense maze of empty roads.

There is something a little bit similar in the space between LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and the sea. Roads laid out, but nothing else built. (In this case you can only see it in Google satellite view, though, not map view.) Perhaps someone eventually realized this was a really stupid place to build residences, right under where all the aircraft are taking off. (At LAX flights normally come in, and take off, low over the sea, deliberately, for safety reasons.)

The streets I was talking about near Pasadena, do not seem to exist at all, however, not even as empty streets without buildings.

I’m not talking about the dictionary user committing a copyright violation by using a copyright trap word thinking it was a real word. I’m talking about them using the word, thinking it was real, and getting into an embarrassing situation with an editor, instructor, or something. E.g., “John, you lost points on your essay about General Rory B. Bellows over a vocabulary issue. You’re supposed to be more mature now that you’re in high school. In paragraph three you said, ‘Although his esquivalience was considered normal for the day, it allowed the POW’s to escape and for that he was court martialed. (Robinson 45)’ I looked at the source - it says, ‘Bellows neglected his duties and the POW’s escaped. A court martial ruled that while his level of neglect was typical of officers of his stature, it was nonetheless punishable.’. Your problem is that you got too smart for your own good and tried to substitute a fancy synonym, but this word doesn’t actually exist. C-.”

This sounds like the original intent of copyright traps - to catch people who simply copy over large amounts of information willy-nilly from the source and include real and copyright trap entries. I’m talking about something more palpably related to the specific item of the copyright trap - like say the writer of a biography, academic paper, or tour guide specifically wants to know what Columbo’s first name was (not just copy over dozens of trivia entries) and happens to pick The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia as a source for this one fact only and properly cites it. Then, the tour guide writer is called out by his boss for letting a false statement get into the tour guide.

There was a case of an urban legend type TV show using a joke off the Snopes website and presented it as fact.

I don’t think anything legal came of it though.

If this was a real copyright trap, this is a good example. You didn’t run out of gas or get heatstroke in the desert but you saw someplace on the map that you didn’t know was there and decided (for whatever reason) to travel there.

True, but anyone who has driven long distances other than through endless suburbia like you have in the Megalopolis knows that sometimes you’re driving through the countryside and want to stop to eat, get gas, or make a phone call (because you don’t get any cell phone reception out here in the middle of farm country or because this was before the days of ubiquitous cell phones or something) and so you start wondering if there are any towns nearby. If one of those towns is a copyright trap, boom.

Honestly, now, do you think this ever happens?

I used to live in El Segundo. That area is a sactuary for the endangered El Segundo Blue butterfly.