'Paper Towns' and Other Lies Maps Tell You

Just because it's on a map doesn't mean it's real. Jan_S/Shutterstock

There's a town on Google Maps that doesn't exist. Although it kind of existed once. Except it was never supposed to.

Agloe, New York map
Google Maps

That town is Agloe, New York, and if you type it into Google Maps, you'll even see a marker designating the now-closed Agloe General Store.

In the 1930s, Otto G. Lindberg, director of the General Drafting Co. (GDC), and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, were charged with creating a New York state map, and they plotted the fictional town of Agloe — an anagram of their initials — on a dirt road between Beaverkill and Rockland.

What they created is known as a "trap" or "paper town," a device used as a type of copyright protection.

In addition to including fake towns, roads and rivers, cartographers may also create false bends in streets or alter mountain elevations — all in an attempt to catch those who might copy their work.

A few years after the GDC published its New York map, the company noticed that Agloe appeared on a map by Rand McNally, one of its competitors. Clearly, the paper town had done its job.

Except it hadn't.

Agloe General Store
Google Maps

Rand McNally argued that it hadn't copied the GDC map because its mapmakers got their information from Delaware County records, which showed that the Agloe General Store existed right where Lindberg and Alpers had placed the fictional town. In fact, the store had taken its name from a map made by Esso, one of GDC's clients.

In short, even though nothing else was there, Agloe had become a real place, and by doing so the town was unable to perform the very function for which it had been created.

Real or not real?

If you've read John Green's bestselling novel "Paper Towns," you're likely familiar with Agloe, which plays an important role in the book and the movie based on it. The book's success has no doubt made Agloe even more real, which could help explain why it exists on Google Maps today.

However, it hasn't always been there. Last March, NPR's Robert Krulwich wrote about Agloe's presence on the mapping service only to discover days later that it had disappeared.

As of today, Agloe is present, complete with street-view images of a road and autumn foliage. Of course, Google has admitted that it has made mapping mistakes in the past.

In 2008, the village of Argleton in West Lancashire, England, was generating a lot of interest.

Internet searches for the village included weather reports, as well as job and real estate listings; however, in reality, "Argleton" was nothing but an empty field.

Google issued a statement that its mapping database has the occasional error, and by 2010 the town had disappeared from its maps.

Argleton on Google Maps
Google Maps

People have speculated that Argleton was in fact a paper town — an anagram of "not large" or "not real" with the "G" standing for Google, but the Internet giant has never admitted to it.

Still, while it's gone now, the fake village may always exist to some degree.

"The nature of digital technologies means that Argleton will likely exist forever, passed from one database to another, a set of gently corroding place marks wandering the face of the Earth," writes Cabinet Magazine.

Plenty of copyright traps have surely gone undiscovered on numerous maps, but OpenStreetMap references many fictitious entries, including Moat Lane in London. The street appears in the TeleAtlas directory, which is the basis of Google Maps, but in reality, there's no such road.

Interestingly, although paper towns and trap streets may help mapmakers prove that copyright infringement has occurred, the fictional places and cartographic lies aren't copyrightable themselves under U.S. law.

To "treat 'false' facts interspersed among actual facts and represented as actual facts as fiction would mean that no one could ever reproduce or copy actual facts without risk of reproducing a false fact and thereby violating a copyright," the law reads.

However, sometimes maps can include false information — not as a trap, but simply as a cartographic prank.

fake Michigan Ohio towns
Google Maps

For example, consider the fictional towns of "Beatosu" and "Goblu" that the chairman of the Michigan Highway Commission — a Michigan University graduate — included on a 1979 Michigan state highway map.

The names, which were later removed, were a dig at Ohio State, Michigan's rival and stood for "Beat OSU" and "Go Blue."

Caught red-handed

Mapmakers aren't the only people who have attempted to entrap would-be copyright infringers.

The word "esquivalence," which appeared in the New Oxford American Dictionary, is supposedly defined as "the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities." However, the word existed only in that publication — and any publication that copied it.

Lillian Mountweazel, whose photos of rural mailboxes made her a celebrated American photographer before her tragic death in a 1973 explosion, is another example of a copyright trap. She never existed except in the pages of the New Columbia Encyclopedia, and today "mountweazel" has become another word for a fictitious entry. (In fact, in the book "Paper Towns," one of the main characters has a pet dog named Myrna Mountweazel.)