Brooklyn Boro

MTA demands amateur artist stop selling unofficial subway map

January 15, 2020 Alex Williamson
Broadway Junction. AP Photo/ Julie Jacobson
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Between pumping 500,000 gallons of water out of tunnels near Lincoln Center, pulling 298 cars from service over concerns the doors would open mid-ride, and menacing commuters with massive Monday morning delays, the MTA found time in recent weeks to go after an amateur artist selling an unofficial subway map on Etsy. The agency sent a notice to the platform last week and Etsy removed the amateur map for copyright infringement.

Manhattan resident Jake Berman makes transit maps in his spare time; he has more than 150 for sale on his Etsy page. He started mapping the New York City subway system in 2008, after the MTA’s official map led him to waste half an hour waiting on a weekend B train that never came.

He spent 300-plus hours creating a map that, among other things, designates which trains are taken out of service late at night or on weekends. Berman’s map was fairly popular online, even making it to the Wikipedia page for the New York City Subway map alongside the MTA’s official version.

About a year and a half ago, Berman decided to begin offering prints of the map for sale on Etsy. He’s far from alone: A search for “New York City subway map” on the e-commerce platform returns more than 270 results.

“There’s a whole community of people who’ve been trying to reinvent the New York City subway map for decades, and they’re easily available on the internet, so I don’t know why they’re picking on me,” Berman said.

Jake Berman’s unofficial subway map. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t until last week that he received notice from Etsy that the map had been taken down due to a complaint from the MTA. The agency claimed that Berman’s map bore enough similarity to the Vignelli map, an official subway map that has been live online since 2011 (three years after Berman says he began drafting his map), to constitute a trademark violation.

Berman — who practices commercial law with a specialization in contracts when he’s not mapmaking — responded to the MTA with a notice of his own, asking the agency to bring a suit in federal court within 10 business days, or else Etsy must allow Berman to sell his map, as required by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

“I hope that this doesn’t lead to litigation,” Berman said. “I try not to be a contentious person in real life. But I hope that the MTA is reasonable about this and that their legal department understands the timeline that applies here.”

As for how the disagreement has affected his map-making business, Berman says there may be some upside to the conflict.

“I think [the map] has suffered from a bit of a Streisand effect to be honest,” he said, referring to the phenomenon where attempting to censor information just attracts more attention. “There’s that old joke that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But realistically, I’d like this to be resolved as straightforwardly as possible.”

A spokesperson for the MTA said the agency is “reviewing the information in the complaint and will respond at the appropriate time.”

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