Database daftness

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My Rail Lite screen

My Rail Lite (MRL) was a neat i-Phone application. It was targeted at young, bright i-phoning professionals who use trains to commute to work. MRL allowed people to search for trains departing from a particular station. The timings were updated in real time. MRL made it much easier to make last minute changes to one’s travel plans. Do I stay for one more round with the boys, or do I sprint to catch the 18:02 to Maidenhead?

You would have thought that the companies who run trains on Britain’s railways would give the guys who developed MRL all possible support, but in this crazy world the opposite is the case. One of our readers sent us a link to the following story on the techdirt blog about how European train operators using a very dubious interpretation of the laws that protect the intellectual property in databases are actually trying to suppress such applications!

We’ve already talked about those who run trains in Germany and Australia cracking down on people creating their own iPhone train schedule apps, claiming they violated intellectual property rights of the train operators. This makes very little sense for a variety of reasons. First, it is still quite ridiculous that any sort of factual information can be covered by copyright…

But, of course, even more idiotic than just the question of copyrighting facts, is the simple point that these apps make it easier for people to ride the trains, which should be exactly what the train operators are encouraging. Thanks to the mantra of certain copyright supporters that “free is bad,” some folks seem unable to think out more than a single step. The fact is, that if people can make a great train schedule app that makes it easier to take the train, then that means more people will take the train, which is where the real money is for train operators. But, of course, the folks who only see one step out, think “wait, we should be making money on that data!” even if it means fewer people take the train, and the net benefit is less.

The latest to make that decision is the UK’s National Rail Enquiries, who forced the creators of the MyRail Lite app to shut down. MyRail Lite was a free iPhone app. NRE is offering its own app… for £4.99. So in the short-term rush to try to score a bit of money from a small group of people, NRE is making the overall rail system a lot more complex for the majority of people. Short-term thinking at its finest.

For the complete techdirt post from which the above is a short extract, click here.

Not only is the behaviour of the train operators daft. If a third party wanted to help me market my own services I would welcome them with open arms, but also their bullying tactics are based on a wilfully wrong interpretation of the European Database Directive and the national legislation.

Databases enjoy copyright protection if “the selection or arrangement of their contents, constitute the author’s own intellectual creation”. The “selection or arrangement” of the data in train timetables is hardly original. In Europe, databases enjoy a second form of protection if there has been “substantial investment in either the obtaining, verification or presentation of the contents”. Plugging the National Rail Enquiries computer into the real time train feeds from the UK Train Operating Companies is hardly a “substantial investment”. So the information in the National Rail Enquiries database enjoys no protection whatsoever.

It is a sad that all the digitally aware journos who covered the story missed this key fact. Here’s hoping that the lads behind MRL will have the guts to call NRE’s bluff!

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