Copyrighting time

David Kravets at Wired reports on a copyright lawsuit that seems to attempt to enforce a copyright over data about time itself:

The publisher of a database chronicling historical time-zone data [Astrolabe] is claiming copyright ownership of those facts, and is suing two researchers for re-purposing it in a free-to-use database relied on by millions of computers….The researchers’ publicly available database was being hosted on a server at the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health, which apparently has removed the data at the request of Massachusetts-based publishing house, Astrolabe. The publisher markets its programs to astrology buffs “seeking to determine the historical time at any given time in any particular location, world-wide,” and claims ownership to the data in its “AC International Atlas” and “ACS American Atlas” software programs.

Wired posted a copy of Astrolabe’s complaint.  Digging into it a bit, here are the main facts alleged:

9. Defendant [researcher Arthur] 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 that the source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas [emphasis added].
10. In connection with his unlawful publication of some and/or any portion of the Works, defendant Olson has wrongly and unlawfully asserted that this information and/or data is “in the public domain,” in violation of the protections afforded by the federal copyright laws.
[11. and 12. The same as 9 and 10, except naming second defendant Paul R. Eggert.]

In other words, based on this complaint, it seems that the researchers simply took facts (e.g., “in 1900, Greenwich Mean Time +3 was defined as the longitude running from…”) and incorporated them into their own database.

If this is true, Astrolabe, as Wired points out,

faces the tough challenge of overcoming a 1991 Supreme Court decision [Feist v. Rural Telephone Service Co.], concerning a company that harvested listings from a phone company’s telephone book and re-published them. The court ruled that “copyright does not extend to facts contained in [a] compilation.”

Unfortunately, I’m guessing that Astrolabe filed this lawsuit simply to scare Olson and Eggert into a quick settlement well before a judge rule on the merits of their claim to use this data under established copyright law.  In part, my surmise is based on the counsel Astrolabe retained.  Their complaint is signed by Julie C. Maloney, an attorney who appears to be a solo practitioner based out of a small town in Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  Although she doesn’t have a law firm website, a bit of Internet searching appears to confirm that land use/zoning rather than intellectual property is her legal specialty.

While I don’t know Ms. Maloney or her professional reputation and am sure she is a capable advocate, these facts don’t suggest that Astrolabe is seeking a discussion on the legal merits of copyright law.  On the contrary, Astrolabe appears (1) primarily concerned with saving money by going with a solo practitioner rather than a bigger law firm, (2) incapable of finding a copyright-specializing attorney willing to take their (weak) case, or (3) both.

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