One of the challenges in sharing data is the concern that someone could steal it. Consequently, when releasing data, companies will often add a tiny bit of false or incorrect information. That way, if they suspect someone else is putting forth data that they own, they can prove that they were the source of that information.
For example, companies that sell databases, such as mailing list vendors, often “salt” or “seed” the mailing list with a few fake names and addresses. Mailings to those people are returned as undeliverable. So if the company starts receiving unexpected material sent to those addresses, it knows the list has been used in an unauthorized manner.
Similarly, some people who subscribe to a new magazine or sign up for a new mailing list use a code name, such as a different middle initial, or an individualized email address, so they know who’s selling their information.
But depending on the field you’re in, such copyright traps can get a lot more sophisticated than that.
For example, the New Columbia Encyclopedia created a fake entry for photographer Lillian Virginia Mountweazel. She became so well known that art exhibits were even created in her honor. In fact, she’s now so famous that some people use “mountweazel” as a general term for these fake items. (She even has her own Facebook page.)
In the same way, when the New Oxford American Dictionary published its first electronic edition in 2001, it included at least one fake word: “esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities . . . late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.’” Actually, at this point, some linguists are even arguing about whether “esquivalience” is now a real word.
More recently, when Google suspected that Microsoft was somehow making use of its results in the Bing search engine, Google created a few fakes of its own. It created search results for nonsense terms such as “Hiybbprqag” and when it found Bing coming up with those same results, it pounced.
The granddaddy of these efforts, though, are “map traps.” These are fake tiny towns in remote areas, or tiny streets and alleys in cities (where they may be called “trap streets”), and they have a very long history. When a map company discovered the fake town or street in another company’s map, it knew that its data was being copied.
Examples of map traps—which typically get deleted once they’re discovered—include Argleton, England; Mount Richard, Colorado; and, possibly, Kemp Ave. in Toronto. In London—which is said to have as many as a hundred—trap streets were even the subject of a Doctor Who episode.
But the most well-known of these map traps is the tiny hamlet of Agloe, in upstate New York. And it’s well-known because of a charming story. Sometime after it was created in 1925 by the General Drafting Co., shopkeepers in the area looking for a name for their new store saw “Agloe” on the map, figured it must be an old name for the region, and called their store Agloe General Store.
The funny part is that, a few years later, seeing the store, Rand McNally added Agloe to its map. When General Drafting saw Agloe on the Rand McNally map, naturally it accused the company of stealing its data, until it learned of the store. There’s even a sign marking the spot, though the general store itself is long gone.
However, the story of Agloe doesn’t end there. John Green, author of tearjerker books for teenage girls, used the town of Agloe as a setting for his book Paper Towns, which also became a movie. Subsequently, hordes of teenage girls have made pilgrimages to the spot to have their picture taken by the Agloe General Store sign.
Sadly, a couple of 1990s legal cases ruled that fake locations couldn’t be copyrighted, and as a result, the proliferation of map traps ceased. While you can still find them sometimes, they aren’t created much anymore.
Nonetheless, if you want to go to the Agloe General Store, Google Maps still has the directions. For now.
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