StationStops’ iPhone application.

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s lawyers are going after a local blogger, and attempting to block an iPhone application showing Metro-North railroad schedules. The blog StationStops writes about Metro-North Commuter Railroad service north of New York City, and often criticizes its operations. Its creator, Chris Schoenfeld, also created an iPhone application to give Metro-North riders schedule information. Now the MTA is insisting he pay them to license the data, and at one point even accused the site of pretending to be an official MTA site.

Schoenfeld’s iPhone application lists schedules for Metro-North trains. The MTA provides its schedules to Google Transit, but doesn’t release the data publicly, as Boston’s MBTA recently did and WMATA has done though more restrictively. Therefore, Schoenfeld entered the schedule data manually from the published schedules to create his application.

Earlier this month, MTA marketers and then lawyers contacted him to demand he sign a license agreement or take down his iPhone app. At one point, the lawyers also claimed that his site appeared to be an official MTA site. Perhaps realizing the enormous fallout that would come from headlines like “MTA tries to silence blogger critical of its operations,” they quickly backed off that particular claim. However, they continued to demand a share of his revenue, retroactive payment for prior sales, and a $5,000 license fee on top.

Some of the MTA’s arguments resemble similar ones from Metro. The MTA told the Stamford Advocate that without a license, the iPhone application might provide inaccurate information. General Manager John Catoe used a similar talking point in a lunchtime chat last year. Ironically, the MTA’s proposed agreement refuses to provide reliable data updates. They don’t want Schoenfeld’s application out there because it might give incorrect information, but if he pays them, then incorrect information isn’t a concern?

What’s really going on is that MTA (and WMATA) officials view technology differently than many users and developers today. In television, one company controls the distribution (cable or broadcast). They pay content providers for content. Those providers pay companies that make shows, who pay actors. The mobile phone market works similarly. You pay a carrier for service. They negotiate deals with specific phone makers to put phones on their network.

This system works fine for what it is, but it’s very limiting. If you are a brilliant TV writer with an idea that none of the networks pick up, you’re mostly out of luck. If you’re a phone manufacturer with a great new phone, you have to still convince at least one US carrier to sell your phone. You can’t just sell the phone to consumers, as you can in Europe. Apple had enormous trouble getting a carrier partner for the iPhone, and had to agree to offer it exclusively on AT&T. Other carriers refused to sell the phone entirely. Any innovation requires negotiation with numerous gatekeepers.

The World Wide Web doesn’t work this way. Greater Greater Washington needs no permission from anyone to exist. You don’t need anyone’s permission to read it. I couldn’t make a Greater Greater Washington TV and get it on cable, though I could distribute it via YouTube. Whereas the TV world and the mobile phone world work through deals negotiated by various companies’ teams of lawyers, the Web works through a culture of permission already granted either expressly or implied. Enough Flickr photographers have listed their pictures under Creative Commons that I can illustrate most posts without having to ask people ahead of time. Without that, I’d need to plan articles a day or more ahead. I can link to other sites without negotiating with them (an issue that, once upon a time, some companies wanted to restrict).

Metro still mainly operates in the deal world. They negotiated a contract with NextBus, and the service launched. Soon you will be able to make phone calls from Metro stations because WMATA worked out a deal with the carriers. Sometimes Metro pays (as with NextBus), sometimes the other company pays (as with the mobile network). If a new carrier wants to operate on the underground antenna system, they have to work out a deal with the existing carriers. Metro needed a trip planner, so they paid some company to make one and put it on wmata.com. Why would they need another? That’s analogous to the Publisher of the Internet deciding that DC already had one neighborhood blog for Shaw, so there can’t be more. Back when getting online meant going onto AOL or Prodigy, that’s basically how it worked. Those companies saw the Internet as just TV with a mouse.

The MTA is blundering about and getting all this bad press because they look at the world in terms of deals, and figure that this thing going on pertaining to them ought to fit into that world. Unfortunately for them, data itself isn’t copyrightable, and as various experts tell the Stamford Advocate, most likely the MTA has no legal basis to stop the application. Unfortunately for Schoenfeld, and us, that doesn’t stop the legal department from throwing its weight around, asking Apple to take the app down (as, unfortunately for iPhone users, Apple has tried to make itself another gatekeeper).

The freer Web model has spurred enormously greater innovation than the deal model. It also required some companies to accept that others might earn money as part of their efforts. You can buy something on Amazon.com using the Firefox browser and not give Mozilla a cut, or your Internet service provider. Early on, the AOL-type online services expected to get that cut, and cable companies are still trying to find a way. You can sell a piece of Windows software and not pay Microsoft. We have far more choice of content, software, and devices on computers than we do in cable set-top boxes or mobile phones.

Public transit agencies should be embracing this model. They aren’t competing with each other or with their riders. They’re taxpayer- and rider-funded organizations designed to provide services to the public. They can get a lot more public benefit by encouraging innovation instead of constantly worrying how to capture their cut of anything anyone does involving transit. Some agencies, like San Francisco’s BART, get this. Unfortunately, many don’t, to the detriment of public transit and the public everywhere.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.