Rock climbers have a tradition of sharing “beta”—helpful information about a route—with other climbers. Giving beta is both useful and a form of community-building within this popular sport. Given that strong tradition of sharing, we were disappointed to learn that the owners of an important community website, MountainProject.com, were abusing copyright to try to shut down another site OpenBeta.io. The good news is that OpenBeta’s creator is not backing down—and EFF is standing with him.
Viet Nguyen, a climber and coder, created OpenBeta to bring open source software tools to the climbing community. He used Mountain Project, a website where climbers can post information about climbing routes, as a source of user-posted data about climbs, including their location, ratings, route descriptions, and the names of first ascensionists. Using this data, Nguyen created free, publicly available interfaces (APIs) that others can use to discover new insights about climbing—anything from mapping favorite crags to analyzing the relative difficulty of routes in different regions—using software of their own.
Rock climbers get a lot of practice at falling hard, taking a moment to recover, and continuing to climb. Mountain Project should take a lesson from their community: dust off, change your approach, and keep climbing.
The Mountain Project website is built on users’ contributions of information about climbs. Building on users’ contributions, Mountain Project offers search tools, “classic climbs” lists, climbing news links, and other content. But although the site runs on the contributions of its users, Mountain Project’s owners apparently want to control who can use those contributions, and how. They sent a cease-and-desist letter to Mr. Nguyen, claiming to “own all rights and interests in the user-generated work” posted to the site, and demanding that he stop using it in OpenBeta. They also sent a DMCA request to GitHub to take down the OpenBeta code repository.
As is typical for sites that host user-generated content, Mountain Project doesn’t ask its users to hand over copyright in their posts, but rather to give the site a “non-exclusive” license to use what they posted. Mountain Project’s owners are effectively usurping their users’ rights in order to threaten a community member.
And even if Mountain Project had a legal interest in the content, OpenBeta didn’t infringe on it. Facts, like the names and locations of climbing routes, can’t be copyrighted in the first place. And although copyright might apply to climbers’ own route descriptions, OpenBeta’s use is a fair use. As we explained in our letter:
The original purpose of the material was to contribute to the general knowledge of the climbing community. The OpenBeta data files do something more: Mr. Nguyen uses it to help others to learn about Machine Learning, making climbing maps, and otherwise using software to generate new insights about rock climbing.
In other words, a fair use.
Rock climbers get a lot of practice at falling hard, taking a moment to recover, and continuing to climb. Mountain Project blew it here by making legally bogus threats against OpenBeta. We hope they take a lesson from their community: dust off, change your approach, and keep climbing.