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A couple of days ago, we discussed how Metro and Google haven’t reached agreement on incorporating schedule data into the Google Transit service. Almost immediately, a few commenters wrote back that Metro has already provided the data, so isn’t it up to Google now?

Let’s look at Metro’s license. I am not a lawyer, but I can read English and am familiar with some legal concepts. If there are any attorneys out there that would like to correct or amplify this discussion, please feel free to chime in.

From Metro’s perspective, they’ve formatted the data properly and released it under a license, so what is Google waiting for? The problem is that their terms are too draconian. Metro won’t let you use their trademarks at all, and even the term “Metro” is a registered trademark according to the system maps. They also reserve the right to stop providing the data without notice, and to start charging for the use of the data at any time. Furthermore, Metro reserves the right to modify or revoke the agreement at any time.

They also require that developers indemnify Metro against any suit resulting from the data. That means that if someone sues Metro over something involving a third-party application, Metro can force that developer to pay all of the court costs and any settlement. The indemnification even applies against lawsuits involving poor quality data, and the data is indeed poor. When I downloaded and used an error checker against the feed, there were thousands of data errors.

These terms boil down to, “If you can download the data, then you can use it for the moment, but if it disappears or we decide we want some money, too bad.” It makes it very risky to spend much time developing an app if Metro can remove the data or put it behind a paywall at any time. It’s also risky to release that app if Metro could force you to pay for lawsuits.

Metro appears still interested in possibly charging for the data. In the recently-approved budget, Metro staff included a $500,000 item to hire a consultant for “Intellectual Property Valuation” service. A Metro spokesperson said that they were interested in figuring out what valuable intellectual property they have and what it might be worth in the market. They have not put this out for official proposal yet. Combined with the statement in the license agreement and previous statements that they were pursuing “revenue sharing” with Google, it’s likely that Metro is looking at offering its GTFS feed only to paying developers. It’s possible they are only thinking about other intellectual property, but not many other possibilities come to mind, especially not that could be worth anywhere near enough to justify $500,000 to analyze.

Metro could alter their agreement in order to make it more palatable to developers, including Google. Most importantly, they could remove the indemnity clause. Metro already disclaims any liability for the data. The other change would be to remove the potential for using the GTFS feed as a revenue source. Like bus schedules and train maps, Metro should be interested in having their routing and schedule information as widely published as possible to promote ridership. Many other transit agencies have taken this approach, and the leaders in the industry, Portland’s TriMet and San Francisco’s BART, are pleased with the results. Developers there have produced new applications that the transit agency either wouldn’t have thought of, or wouldn’t have had time to produce.

Google uses a lot of publicly available information in its online tools. If Metro were to open up their license, it’s possible that Google would accept freely available information and be able to provide the service.

Coming up: What’s in Google’s agreement, and whether Metro should consider just accepting it.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.