Critics Assail Proposed Database Law
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By Sebastian Rupley

What would be the impact of allowing companies to own copyrights on databases? Experts in the legal community in concert with a number of high-tech industry watchdogs say the shock to the Internet, ISPs, and others could be seismic. But such legislation is making its way through the U.S. Congress. The controversial Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act has already been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, and the House Commerce Committee is slated to evaluate it late this week.


When PC Magazine last reported on the proposed legislation, the ACLU, numerous libraries, and NetCoalition, a group that describes itself as "the public policy voice for some of the world's most innovative Internet companies," were in vigorous opposition. In January, top law professors from around the U.S., including Stanford's Lawrence Lessig and the University of California at Berkeley's Pamela Samuelson, joined NetCoalition in opposition.

"HR 3261 would inevitably chill communication, and the First Amendment concerns raised by the bill have not been effectively addressed by its advocates," says a letter from the law professors to House judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner (R–WI). "It would be a tragic error to ignore the needs and wishes of the innovators who will build the next generation of valuable information-based products while providing unneeded and unjustified new protections to the companies that dominate the field today."

What's all the hubbub about? In 1991, the Supreme Court ruled that copyrights applied to "creative works" and not to mere collections of facts such as those compiled in a database. The essence of the Supreme Court's ruling was that you cannot copyright a fact, such as a person's address, a stock quote, or many of the examples of fact-based, real-time information delivered through search engines and informational sites on the Web.

The Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act would allow databases of facts to be copyrighted, and give subpoena rights to owners of databases, conferring powers similar to those being employed by the music industry as it pursues online traders of copyrighted songs. The stated goal of the proposed legislation is to prevent the misappropriation of information stored in databases, and it was originally set in motion by several companies that own extensive databases, including Reed-Elsevier, owner of the LexisNexis database. Among other things, LexisNexis contains information on all court cases in the United States, data that would become copyrightable under the legislation.

H.R. 3261 defines a database as "a collection of a large number of discrete items of information produced for the purpose of bringing such discrete items of information together in one place or through one source so that persons may access them." Under that definition, a Web page containing individuals' phone numbers could be construed to be a database.

"The support for NetCoalition's position from [leading law professors] shows the mounting opposition to any database legislation at this time," says Markham Erickson, director of federal policy for NetCoalition, in an advisory. "H.R. 3261 is a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation that seems to be an answer in search of a problem."

The House Commerce Committee will likely evaluate the bill on Thursday of this week. PC Magazine will follow up on the story.

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