Thwarting Piracy

Proposed law would extend copyright to databases.

Legislation percolating through Congress looks to ensure that federal law provides copyright protection to owners of commercial databases.

The Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act as currently envisioned would overturn older, pre-Internet court rulings that generally did not extend copyright protection to databases because they were considered mere collections of facts, not the product of creative work.

As it stands, data in such commercial databases as those in Reed-Elsevier Inc.s LexisNexis services cannot be copyrighted; only the selection, arrangement and coordination of that data are protected by law. Advocates of the new act, which is in draft form, say this means organizations can have their information stolen, repurposed and resold on the Internet by data pirates.

Keith Kupferschmid, representing the Coalition Against Database Piracy, testified before a joint House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the draft legislation late last month. The legislation is a narrowly scripted version of similar legislation that has kicked around for some seven years. A past incarnation was dubbed the Database Protection Act.

The current version of the bill to stop such pilfering differs from previous bills in that it steers clear of the intellectual property issues that have mired previous legislative efforts. Past bills would have allowed database producers to prevent people from using information in a database or from extracting information from a database. Such an approach riled opponents such as research institutions, who saw it as an attempt to grab the property rights for naked facts.

In contrast, the current bill concerns itself with data misappropriation and doesnt cover the use or extraction of information, according to Kupferschmid, vice president for intellectual property policy and enforcement at the Software and Information Industry Association, in Washington. Kupferschmid testified in favor of the bill.

"Were hoping we can use it to prevent database piracy, where somebody takes somebody elses database, slaps their name on it and then goes into competition with the original database producer," Kupferschmid told eWEEK. "Were not trying to pursue libraries or research institutions. That was one of the concerns of the opponents—[previous bills] would have covered use of database data. If you can prevent somebody from extracting or using information, I can see where that would raise concerns."

Whats at stake is the availability of organized, timely and comprehensive information, Kupferschmid said. He cited a case that involved the online auction site eBay Inc. and Bidders Edge Inc., a shopping bot that collected information on what was being auctioned anywhere online, along with the prices auctioned items were fetching. Bidders Edge would then publish the data in a central location. eBay filed suit in 1999 to stop Bidders Edge, but the bot shop went out of business before an injunction could take effect.

Bidders Edges spiders were collecting sale-price data that was outdated almost instantly, as bids rose, because there was no real-time aggregator involved, Kupferschmid said. Bidders Edge users would arrive at the eBay site ready to buy, say, a 13-inch color TV for $10, only to find it selling for $50. They would then assume that eBay was pulling a bait-and-switch operation, Kupferschmid said, thus sullying eBays reputation and good standing with customers. "They dont get mad at Bidder; they get mad at eBay," he said. "Thats a problem."

The proposed law faces plenty of critics. For instance, William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, urged Congress to go slowly, telling the hearing that "healthy competition in the information industry needs to be promoted, while the further strengthening of unwarranted monopolies should be avoided."

Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the legislation would invite a wave of litigation that stifles innovation, thus threatening businesses, academics and scientists.