TimeZone Database Editors Sued

An interesting copyright suit has come across the wires:  Astrolable, Inc. v. Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert. The complaint alleges that Defendants infringed on the Plaintiff’s copyright assignment to historical time zone information with their Timezone (tz or zoneinfo) database. The Timezone database, also called the Olson Database, is a library of historical timezone information. It is intended primarily for use with computer systems, notably UNIX (from which Mac OS X is derived). That means that time zone information for computers running UNIX and Mac comes from this library, which is included in the operating system.

The tz database was originally compiled by Arthur David Olson at the NIH, and has been edited and maintained by Paul Eggert at UCLA. Olson and Eggert are the named defendants in this complaint. The database was housed on NIH servers until the complaint at issue was filed. ICANN has since taken over the database. This suit is important because UNIX systems rely on updates to the tzdatabase to run time zone information. The complaint was filed by Astrolabe, Inc., a company that sells astrology software. Astrolabe asserts that it is the copyright assignee for the ACS Atlas. It appears that the heart of the complaint is that defendants used ACS’ historical time zone data to populate the tz database.

Astrolabe’s complaint asserts rights over “certain copyright-protected computer software programs and information contained therein…known as the “ACS Atlas,” consisting of both the “ACS International Atlas,” and “ACS American Atlas,” in the form of computer software program(s) and/or data bases, and in the form of electronic output and future electronic media from said programs [hereinafter “the Works”].

They further allege that “Defendant Olson’s unauthorized reproduction of the Works have been published at [NIH site], where the references to historical international time zone data is replete with references to the fact that the source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas.”

The ACS Atlas can be found in print, and in electronic form as the “ACS PC Atlas for Windows.” Astrolabe sells the software on their website. It’s hard to tell from the complaint exactly which of “the Works” was infringed upon. The defendant could have copied the data from the book or from the software.

The problem with this allegation, whether Olson used books or software, is that he took data. Data generally cannot be copyrighted in the United States. The tz database is, in essence, a library of historical data.

Databases may be entitled to copyright protection as compilations under 17 USC §101:

A “compilation” is a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship. The term “compilation” includes collective works.

The leading case in compilation analysis is Feist Publications Inc v. Rural Telephone Service Co. 499 U.S. 340 (1991). Under Feist, “factual compilations…may possess the requisite originality” required to constitute an original work.  The “sweat of the brow,” the work required to compile the facts, is not enough. The author must make choices about selection, coordination, and arrangement of the facts to qualify for copyright protection.

I have no idea how the historical time zone facts are arranged in the book or software form of the Atlas, but if they are listed in, say, chronological order, that may not be sufficiently creative to entitle them to copyright protection. In Feist, alphabetical arrangement of telephone numbers was not sufficient. We’ll have to wait for the case to move to find out.

You can follow the case at Justia dockets. For more information, check out these posts:

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