The Daily Parker

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More about the tzinfo copyright lawsuit

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., 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.

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