5 Copyright Traps You Never Knew About

by Legal Author on June 24, 2013

credit: MrGluSniffer

Copyright law can be a brutal and mercenary field. Intellectual property holders are constantly in a struggle to protect their content from unauthorized sharing or duplication by third parties, and an ever-expanding arsenal has developed to combat the eroding of IP rights. One of the lesser-known weapons in this arsenal is the “copyright trap,” a sly piece of misinformation designed to incriminate copyright infringers. Here are a few of the lesser-known copyright traps.

1. Trap Streets

Trap streets are fictitious entries found in city guides or street maps, designed to snag potential violators of copyright. Map-makers will sometimes introduce fictitious streets into their maps, or misrepresent existing streets with false names or inaccurate geography — for example, adding turns to a street where there is none, or depicting a minor street as a major one. If the map is copied by another publication, the presence of the trap street will implicate them in copyright infringement. Curiously, trap streets (and other copyright traps) themselves are not copyrightable under United States copyright law. According to the court, “[t]o treat ‘false’ facts interspersed among actual facts and represented as actual facts as fiction would mean that no one could ever reproduce or copy actual facts without risk of reproducing a false fact and thereby violating a copyright.”

2. Fictitious Towns

Some map-makers go to even more extreme lengths, and create entirely fictitious towns and settlements. Known as “phantom settlements,” these are map entries that exist nowhere but on paper or digital medium. Some are mapping accidents or cartography errors, but others are copyright traps. Examples include Argleton, Lancashire, UK and Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio, in the United States. Another famous phantom settlement was Agloe, New York, which was created as a copyright trap in the 1930s, but became a real place when a general store was built there in the 1950s. The store went out of business, but Agloe stayed on the map until the 1990s.

3. Esquivalence

Esquivalence, another word for “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities” — or is it? Turns out, esquivalence is a copyright trap word created by the New Oxford American Dictionary to protect the dictionary’s copyright. The hoax word was uncovered by Henry Alford, who learned that the New Oxford American Dictionary had included a false entry in their dictionary. The word has been in the NOAD since the first edition, up to and including digital versions of the dictionary. The website dictionary.com apparently fell prey to the copyright trap, including it in their database for some time before removing it.

4. Zzxjoanw

“Zzxjoanw” is a Maori word meaning “drum,” “fife,” or “conclusion” — at least, according to Rupert Hughes’ 1903 book The Musical Guide, which contained a dictionary section on unusual terms and instruments. The dictionary contained over 250 foreign language terms for various musical instruments and phrases. The famous zzxjoanw was even cited in a 2005 book, You Say Tomato, a guide to some of the most mispronounced words in the world.

Of course, the zzxjoanw is a fictitious entry in Hughes’ famous dictionary, designed as a hoax to weed out potential copyright infringers, and apparently still nabbing culprits a hundred years later.

5. Lillian Mountweazel

Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, born 1942, was an American photographer who became famous for her portraits of the South Sierra Miwok in the 1960s. She produced a famous book on rural American mailboxes and became a celebrated figure in the field of photography before being tragically killed in an explosion in 1973. Only Lillian Mountweazel never existed at all. She was a copyright trap created by the New Columbia Encyclopedia. In fact, “mountweazel” has become another word for copyright trap.

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Jon Pardons is a writer who loves law, literature, and is currently writing for online printer cartridge shop, PrinterInks.com.

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