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Open data: did the RATP group miss the metro?

posted Jul 6, 2011, 10:27 AM by Julien Pillot   [ updated Jul 6, 2011, 1:50 PM ]

In France, as shown by several advices and decisions of the French Competition Authority over the last decade (for instance, 01-A-05; 01-A-08; 04-A-12...), public data has long time been a warmly discussed question. At the core of the debate lies the likelihood to consider these data as essential facilities or open data, that is to say as critical material which might be shared in a non-discriminatory way with any third party requiring access… especially when such data flows from previous public investments rather than public bodies or undertakings’ sole merits. Last June, a brand new case involving the RATP group (the state-owned public transport operator for the city of Paris) sparked things off again.

In a nutshell, on June 20th, the RATP group formally asked Apple to remove the application “CheckMyMetro” from App Store and iTunes. While the first version of this collective application allowed any user to share information relative to real-time subway activities (such as the presence of inspectors, commercials or musicians) with the whole community, the late version released in May embedded traffic information and maps of the metro network. However, as the author of the Paris Metro map and the owner of corresponding French design registration as well as the database editor of the real-time metro traffic, the RATP group considers that he owns Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) on these materials and, consequently, that any unauthorized reproduction or distribution of these data is likely to be seen as counterfeiting act. Two days later, Benjamin Suchar – the app’s creator – announced that the abovementioned material will be removed from the app’ after being assured that CheckMyMetro’s distribution on App Store will continue.

Far from being a mere additional case of potential trademark/copyright infringement, this case deserves closer scrutiny. At first glance, it is to mention that the discussed content was already provided to RATP’s own wap site Premium users. Hence, regarding IPR, the mobile app’ could actually be seen as an inappropriate facsimile (besides the RATP’s board mentioned “two versions of the same site”). Nevertheless, at least two elements would advocate reviewing the present case in new light. On the one hand, as prescribed in a very recent government circular, French public bodies have to grant free access to public data in the shortest possible time. Even if the circular provides exemption for EPIC (French Public Commercial Companies) – just like the RATP – the question remains on RATP’s true merits in designing the Paris Metro map. On the other hand, while the RATP group offers the abovementioned information to its Premium (paying) customers, CheckMyMetro was providing the same data for free. Then, we slide from a potential IPR infringement question to a real competition issue.

The balance between the two sides of the case remains unclear yet. From a legal standpoint, RATP’s IPR on its homemade products prevent the French undertaking from any unapproved utilization of its copyrighted material. Nevertheless, as obvious public data, “raw” network information seems to appeal for open access. Furthermore, from an economic point of view, forced (public) data sharing might be virtuous when it encourages activity through innovation and/or decrease in price, especially when 1) data are of general interest 2) ownership mainly proceeds from previous public investments. Through these two opposite sides of the same coin lies an imperious necessity to (at last!) legislate on the open data burning issue... both to mind and fill the gap.