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Can you spot a town that isn't?

Imagine drawing a map of your hometown. You'd have to include all the street names, points of interest (schools, churches, parks), and major geographical features (mountains, rivers). What a job! Making a map is hard work.

Back in the 1920s, when automobiles and paved highways were becoming more common, mapmakers drew each map by hand.

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Once a map was finished, though, how could mapmakers keep others from simply copying the map and selling it as their own? The maps were copyrighted, of course. (If you copyright something, it means that no one can copy it without your permission.)

But how could you prove someone had copied your map when every accurate map should look the same?

Answer: Set a trap for copycats. According to a number of people who worked for map companies, something called a "key trap" or a "paper street" might be included in a map.

The trap might be something slight: a road that turns a little differently than it does in real life, a fake street name, a purposeless number, maybe a made-up town.

The "key traps" would not cause a motorist to lose his way. But if they appeared on a competitor's map, the original mapmaker would have proof that his work had been copied. (One mapmaker recalled hearing of a fictitious town of "Agloe" on an Esso map of New York in the 1920s.)

Not all mapmakers do this. David Lanter, a spokesman for mapmaker Rand McNally, states flatly that, at his company, "We do not create or use fictitious places." They want their maps to be as accurate as possible, he says.

Ted Patton, of Patton Maps in Doylestown, Pa., has a different view. "Mapmakers have historically added fake information to their maps," he says, "to make it easier to catch people who try to copy a map." (A recent court ruling makes it much harder to copyright a map, he notes.)

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So next time you look at a map, look very closely. Who knows? You may find a place that doesn't exist!

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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