Publisher Claims Ownership of Time-Zone Data

The publisher of a database chronicling historical time-zone data 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 data, which basically spells out past and future times anywhere in the world, is used in Java, Linux, PostgreSQL, Oracle and other programs to assign the correct time based on geographic location.

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.

Astrolabe’s federal lawsuit, filed last week, is among the boldest claims of copyright infringement since 2005. That’s when Bikram Choudhury, the hot-yoga guru, claimed copyright to his yoga positions. Choudhury had sent cease-and-desist letters ordering studios to stop teaching what he claimed were his copyrighted yoga poses.

In an out-of-court settlement, the targeted studios agreed they would not capitalize off of the Bikram brand name. But they were not prohibited from teaching his style of yoga, which was based off of an art form thousands of years old.

The suit also faces the tough challenge of overcoming a 1991 Supreme Court decision, 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.”

Astrolabe claims Arthur Olson, a computer scientist at the National Institutes of Health, and Paul Eggert, a computer scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, have “unlawfully reproduced the works” (.pdf) and distributed them without permission from the copyright holder. The allegedly infringing database credits the Astrolabe database.

Eggert, who has written that the “tz database” is in the “public domain,” declined comment. Olson did not respond for comment. The National Institutes of Health declined comment. Julie Molloy, Astrolabe’s attorney, did not respond for comment.

The atlases in question, according to the suit, “set forth interpretations of historical time zone information pertaining to innumerable locations throughout the world, based upon the compilation of historical research and documentation regarding applicable time zones officially and/or in actuality in effect, given the actual latitude and longitudes of specific locations throughout the world.”

The suit, which claims the defendants “unlawfully deprived” Astrolabe of income, seeks unspecified damages.

Photo: {bad contact, no biscuit}/Flickr

Hat Tip: The Daily Parker