Who Owns Muni's Arrival and Departure Times? That Depends on Whom You Ask.

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Jim Herd
Is the city having a NextBus meltdown?
It was Benito Mussolini who was credited for making Italy's trains run on time -- even though he didn't, and the notion of an Italian train running on time is rather novel.

The notion of San Francisco trains running on time is quaint as well, which is why it's a good thing we've got NextBus.com to tell us when to sprint to the station and when to saunter. But the question of who owns the actual arrival and departure data for the trains isn't as straightforward as you might think. A representative of the city told us the data belongs to San Francisco and "was generated by a publicly owned system using taxpayer dollars." Along those lines, a Mission Bay programmer named Steven Peterson feels that as a member of the general public, he had as much right as anyone to create an iPhone application called "Routesy" and present NextBus data in a slightly cuter format. Yet the CEO of a two-person company -- the other employee is the COO -- told us that he and he alone owns the data on NextBus.com -- and his company's angry e-mails persuaded Apple not to feature Routesy anymore.

This is a complicated argument because the fellow claiming he owns the content of NextBus.com is Ken Schmier -- the man who first conceived of the Muni fast pass decades ago and invented -- and patented -- the NextBus system in 1996. Drowning in red ink, however, Schmier sold his company to a Canadian firm called Grey Island International Systems in 2005 for a piddling $700,000 and around $1.25 million in stock. Here's the catch, though: While Schmier's current company, Next Bus Information Systems consists of him and a COO named Alex Orloff -- and that's it -- Schmier retains the right to serve as "the agent for the commercial use of predictive data." What does that mean? Not even folks employed by the city with many letters following their names are sure, and it allows Schmier to claim he owns NextBus.com's data.   

In a nutshell, this is not how the city sees things. Judson True, the spokesman for Muni, states unambiguously that the city owns the Muni-related data on NextBus.com and NextMuni.com. When asked, then, how Schmier could possibly demand to be paid for use of this data -- as he did with Peterson, and according to Peterson, the site MuniTime.com  -- True says he'll leave answering that question to us. Make of that what you will. Peterson, incidentally, has contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation to query about taking legal action against Schmier's company.

Meanwhile, SF Weekly tracked down a source within city government intimately familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity. He described Schmier's current company as merely "a group of shareholders" that has the right to be "'the commercial representative for the commercial application of the data' -- whatever that means." What that has meant so far, according to Schmier, is that he's sold banner ads on NextBus.com -- a Web site owned by Grey Systems, not him. The total amount of money brought in this way since 2005: Somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000.

"Mr. Schmier is trying to make a buck. That is what we think," said the city source regarding Schmier's claims to NextBus data. "Contrary to the information Mr. Schmier is feeding the media ... the MTA spent years getting this system to work. The reason it took so long to roll out is it didn't work. Mr. Schmier had a good idea, but he didn't have the technical know-how to make it work."

Schmier cries foul at this assessment. He blames Muni for ruining his beautiful idea and putting him and his investors in a $10 million hole. He claims Muni repeatedly "put the brakes" on the NextBus project between 2000 and 2005, until he finally was forced to sell his company. He said he hopes his "data distribution rights" to the NextBus.com arrival and departure times will establish "a cash flow over time and make us whole." So far, however, he's only been able to sell "next to nothing" in advertising on NextBus.com -- and the only ads running now (on the AC Transit portion of the site) are free house ads for a Web application Schmier and Co. spent an additional $200,000 developing. "I don't think Muni is evil," he says. "They are like a bull in a china shop."

In the meantime, it warrants mentioning that the nine-year-old contract between the city and NextBus is in the final stages of a revision -- our city source expects it to be completed within weeks. It will be interesting to see what mention there is -- if any -- of Schmier and his "right to be the commercial representative for the commercial application of the data."

Whatever that means.

NOTE: SF Appeal also wrote about this issue; we spoke to some of the same people, but their report did not inform ours. You can see their story here.

Photo   |   Jim Herd

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