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

The National Institutes for Health, through a quirk of history, maintainsed the worldwide-standard time zone database until today. A Massachusetts-based company, Astrolabe, Inc., has sued the people who maintain the database for copyright infringement. The company claims to have purchased the rights to The American Atlas, from which the time zone database derived some of its data. From the complaint:

Defendant Olson’s unauthorized reproduction of the Works have been published at ftp://elsie.nci.nih.gov/tzarchive.qz, where the references to historic international time zone data is replete with references to the fact thatthe source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas.

Here are a couple of examples from the database:

# From Paul Eggert (2006-03-22):
# A good source for time zone historical data in the US is
# Thomas G. Shanks, The American Atlas (5th edition),
# San Diego: ACS Publications, Inc. (1991).
# Make sure you have the errata sheet; the book is somewhat useless without it.
# It is the source for most of the pre-1991 US entries below.

Here's an example from the data itself, in the Newfoundland section:

# Rule	NAME	FROM	TO	TYPE	IN	ON	AT	SAVE	LETTER/S
Rule	StJohns	1917	only	-	Apr	 8	2:00	1:00	D
Rule	StJohns	1917	only	-	Sep	17	2:00	0	S
# Whitman gives 1919 Apr 5 and 1920 Apr 5; go with Shanks & Pottenger.

I don't think anyone will deny that Arthur Olson, Paul Eggert, not to mention the hundreds of other people who have maintained the database for years, have used the book in question as a key reference. So here are the questions which, unfortunately, will take the court a couple of years to work out:

  1. Is data about when time zone rules changed throughout history protected under copyright?
  2. If so, who owns it?
  3. If someone owns it, is the Olson database a derivative work under copyright law?
  4. If the Olson database does, in fact, derive from the work in question, is it a fair use?
  5. Just how stupid are these astrologists, anyway?

Because what you may not know, dear reader, is that almost every Unix-based computer in the world uses this database to set its clock to local time. (All of the applications I've written, starting with Weather Now, use the database as well.) Shutting down the database project will require individual system administrators to update their local copies when rules change. It's not onerous, but it will lead to gaps, particularly in global applications like Weather Now.

What's even stupider about this lawsuit is that comments in the database encourage people to buy the book. So even if Astrolabe owns the copyright to the facts about time zone rules—a troubling proposition—their republication in the Olson database increases the likelihood that they'll make money off it.

Only, facts as such are not protected, so I can't see how Astrolabe can possibly win this suit. I will be contributing to Olson's and Eggert's legal defense fund once they get it set up.

Astrolabe doesn't need to look to the heavens to see how this will turn out.

Update: More here and here.

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David Braverman and Parker
David Braverman is a software developer in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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