A few weeks ago one of our iOS users had a problem with our new app WifiMapper. Looking for Wi-Fi hotspots near the Eiffel Tower, and so typing ‘the Eiffel Tower’ into the search bar, they were redirected to a the middle of the ocean – near a small Island, shaped a little bit like South America if you cut out large parts of Peru and Bolivia. The island in question is pictured below, unfortunately no other information was attached beyond the latitudinal line, no clues to the size of the island or where in the world it could be – all we knew was that a search for the Eiffel Tower returned us here and none of us recognized it.
On a hunch based on similar previous bugs (and guessing that the line you can see is the Equator), we decided to turn our search to the Gulf of Guinea – to the intersection of the Equator and the Greenwich Meridian – 0,0. The centre of the world.
At first we found nothing, there’s no island at 0,0. Zooming in further, however, saw the island rise into view, as though a submarine volcano was pushing its lava spew above the waterline. We immediately went to Google Maps to see if we could find the same thing – but we could not, the screen was completely ocean blue. Our first (and perfectly reasonable) thought was that we had uncovered Apple’s secret headquarters; until we noticed the size of the island – approximately 45 yards across – far too small to hold any respectable secret headquarters.
So what is this fake island? What’s it doing there? One possible answer can be found in the history of cartography, as mistakes have historically been a part of mapmaking (and in other works of reference) as a form of copyright protection.
The term for this is a ‘fictitious entry’ (although I prefer the term ‘Mountweazel’, based on a fictitious entry in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia’). Creating maps from scratch has always taken a huge amount of work, as Apple Maps’ far from seamless launch in 2012 demonstrated, and it is paramount for their creators to be able to protect their work from infringement. Since Maps are based on the same physical world, proving infringement of a perfectly accurate map would be impossible, but by creating entries that differ from the real world in small but unmistakable ways, mapmakers are able to prove that their work has been ripped-off. One of the most famous examples of this in action was in 2001, when the Ordnance Survey Company successfully sued the Automobile Association for copyright infringement – with AA ordered to pay out £20m in compensation.
Apple may have created their own island as a mark of ownership. Maps remain huge business, with Google’s billion dollar acquisition of crowdsourced traffic app Waze regarded as a move to protect their own dominance in that space, and it is probable that Apple Maps is full of tiny mistakes designed to make proving copyright infringement easy. If only they’d been able to use this explanation back in 2012 when the mistakes were rather more than ‘tiny’.