Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Thursday 6 October 2011

At lunch I thought more about the copyright case against timezone data that the crazy astrologers have launched. I believe Arthur Olson and Paul Eggert, the volunteers who coordinated the tzinfo database for years and who now find themselves sued for doing so, have two principal defenses, one of which may allow them to get the case dismissed.

First, copyright law does not protect strictly-factual information. The Copyright Act only protects the expression of facts. 17 USC 102(b) clearly states:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

Massachusetts (!) attorney Ronald B. Standler analyzed the copyrightability of factual information in a 2009 essay that relies heavily on the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Feist Publications v Rural Telephone. In the case, a publisher blatantly copied and republished directory listings from a telephone company's white pages. The Supreme Court found that the directory information was not protected by copyright, because it was strictly factual data.

In a later case, Ticketmaster v. Tickets.com, the defendant had used a bot to scrape event information off Ticketmaster's website. The trial court found that the event information was not protected, and the temporary copying required for the bot to operate (it had to download a copy of each page in order to parse it) was fair use.

This brings up the second defense, should the first not win the case for Olson and Eggert. 17 USC 106 allows certain uses of copyrighted works "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research..." and requires consideration of "the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work."

In this case, the tzinfo database (technically a publication of the U.S. government thanks to Olson's employment at the National Institutes of Health) lists historical time zone rules to enable any consumer of the data to find local wall-clock time for any point on earth back to the institution of standard time there. Who cares about this? Well, how about historians? Meteorologists? Frikin' astrologers?

And earlier today I pointed out that, if anything, the Olson database creates a market for the time zone atlas, by referring to it and even providing links to the author.

Oh, and a bonus third defense (which will probably be raised first): the infringement, if any, started waaaay back in the 1990s; 17 USC 507 prohibits a lawsuit "unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued." Of course, each time they published a new version of the tzinfo database, it might constitute a new infringement, so I'm not sure about this.

This case stinks. Don't even get me started on the plaintiff's attorney, who's not the cleanest dog in the pound according to the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission. (Molloy "admitted that she had violated the conflict of interest law by appearing before the Sandwich Zoning Board of Appeals on behalf of her private law clients to oppose a special permit application after she had participated in her capacity as a Planning Board member in formulating comments on the same special permit application." Oopsi.)

If this case gets past initial motions I'll be shocked. And as soon as I find out where to send checks, I'll post information about Olson's and Eggert's legal defense funds.

Thursday 6 October 2011 14:36:42 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [2] | US | Business#
Friday 14 October 2011 03:18:23 CDT (UTC-05:00)
Astrolabe response:
Immediately after filing a copyright violation lawsuit with the U.S District Court for Massachusetts against Mr. Arthur David Olson or Mr. Paul R. Eggert, Astrolabe Inc., received dozens of highly emotional emails, telephone calls, Facebook postings, tweets and inquiries. There have also been attempts to disable its website.

Astrolabe has now done a careful reading of these communications, as well as of the various industry publications that broke this story on October 7.

A typical news story appeared in TheRegister.co.uk under the Headline “Chaos feared after Unix time-zone database is nuked.” It continued, “The internet’s authoritative source for time-zone data has been shut down after the volunteer programmer who maintained it was sued for copyright infringement by a maker of astrology software.” It went on to say that the Time Zone and Daylight Saving Time Database, also known as the Olson database, is “the official reference Unix machines use to set clocks to local time” and that it “is used by countless websites and applications to reconcile time differences across the world.”

We can well understand the panic caused by such stories. However we believe that the highly emotional reactions that we received were based on an incomplete understanding of the facts. These facts are as follows:

1. Astrolabe’s lawsuit is in no way intended to interfere with compilation of current time-zone information maintained by Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, or any other persons. On the contrary, Astrolabe recognizes that compiling current time-change information is crucial for keeping computers properly up to date, as well as for many other useful purposes in today’s world. Astrolabe applauds the efforts of Olson, Eggert and the many other volunteers who maintain the database of current time changes.

2. The aim of Astrolabe’s suit is only to enforce copyright protection for materials regarding historical time data prior to 2000. This does not affect current time-setting on computers, and it has little or no effect on the Unix computing world.

Late in 2010 Astrolabe was disturbed to learn of the compilation effort of Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, which had been going on for a number of years. When asked to what extent they had relied upon the historical data published by ACS Publications, Mssrs. Olson and Eggert gave Astrolabe misleading answers. Further research by Astrolabe revealed that, contrary to the representations of Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, their database contained not just incidental or limited reproduction of the copyrighted material, but wholesale reproduction of the same, without lawful permission, contract or license.

3. The fact is that the historical time zone data compiled by ACS is protected by registered copyrights, first on its publication in book form as the American Atlas and the International Atlas, and later in electronic form as the ACS PC Atlas. The question of whether the material is “copyrightable”: has already been decided by the U.S. Copyright Office in the affirmative.

4. Why is the material considered copyrightable? Many hold the mistaken belief that all databases are mere compilations of fact, and are therefore not subject to copyright. However, compiling the ACS database went far beyond gathering official government data. In 20th-century America, particularly in the Midwest, time standards were a chaotic patchwork of not only state and local ordinances, but even of different time observances in the same jurisdiction. (For example, in some cases a hospital would record birth times using Standard Time while the surrounding city was on Daylight Time.)

Ferreting out the time standard that was actually being used to record a birth time involved a great deal of ingenuity. Besides researching “official” records, the publisher and authors consulted a myriad of other records using proprietary methods and, on some occasions, hiring local investigators. Where inconsistencies existed, the publisher and authors used their best judgments and expertise as to the actual time observed in specific locations, based on this historical research. In much the same way as Zagat Survey and Michelin Guide not only set forth the names, addresses and features of particular restaurants, but also various ratings, the Atlases comprise original historical time and location research, including judgments and expertise in determining actual historical time observed in any given location, fully meeting the definition of an “original work” as required under the Copyright Laws of the United States.

5. Why did the ACS compilers bother to undertake this effort? Prior to the widespread use of computers, few except astrologers had any interest in putting together detailed information about the time standards that were actually in use in different geographical areas at various times in history. As every astrologer knows, this information is vital. Without knowing the relation of the local time in use to time at the Greenwich meridian (the standard that is used for astronomical observations), it is impossible to calculate an accurate astrological chart.

Whatever others think of astrology, at the very least the world owes a debt to astrologers for creating this massive record of the time standards used in the past. This is not the place to make a detailed defense of astrology, but in answer to those whose outrage is increased by the fact that astrologers are the plaintiffs, we can only say that these detractors are uninformed. Uncritical recipients of the opinions of those who are higher in status than they are, they have obviously never experienced the power of astrology for themselves. Why astrology works is still a mystery, but as the prevailing paradigm morphs from 19th-century mechanism into one that has to embrace all the new things we are finding out about the universe, perhaps we will soon have a plausible explanation. Anyway, to those who know that astrology is bunkum and its practitioners are money-seeking parasites on society, all we can say is try to be a bit humbler and accept that the universe is far more mysterious than you imagine.

6. Why is Astrolabe suing to defend this copyright? Following the death of Neil Michelsen, the founder of Astro Computing Services, Astrolabe purchased the rights to the ACS PC Atlas, the electronic expression of the time-change database compiled by Michelsen, Thomas Shanks and Mark and Rique Pottenger. The data was also augmented by permission with the work of Doris Chase Doane and Francoise and Michel Gauquelin. In addition, the entire astrological community gave their time and energy to help correct this ongoing work, freely knowing that it was for commercial use.

With this purchase, Astrolabe inherited the obligation to pay royalties on the Atlas to Michelsen’s widow and to the other principal compilers, who are now at retirement-age. Astrolabe is defending this hard-earned intellectual property in order to continue paying royalties and recoup its own investment. Contrary to the accusations that it is trolling for dollars, it is not filing this suit in pursuit of vast amounts of cash. In the astrology world, there are no vast amounts of cash. The suit was filed in order to make Astrolabe’s concerns known to Mssrs. Olson and Eggert having not received a satisfactory reply to earlier phone calls and letters. Astrolabe has no wish to cripple the database on which Unix, Linux, Java and other computing depends.


In filing this suit, Astrolabe has touched the hot buttons on a number of highly emotional issues. One issue is the long-held right of people to receive money for their labors vs. the newer values of open sourcing, wiki and the other forms of the free information exchange that have made the internet so great. Another is the clash of paradigms between a mechanistic one unfriendly to astrology and a newer (and older) one that recognizes that the universe is far more mysterious than we thought. It is painful to be caught in these cross-currents, but we hope that through this suit we will not only gain a just decision, but also promote greater clarity on these important issues.
Friday 14 October 2011 08:45:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)
Thanks for the press release; my response is here.
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