Database Plan to Spark 1997 Battle in Congress

Content owners want a new database law, but opposition is building from libraries

Industry lobbyists who believe databases are a new form of intellectual property, and therefore deserve a new form of legal protection, are likely to spark a major fight in Congress next year when they are expected to promote the drafting of database protection legislation.


The "domestic or international adoption of a [database protection] proposal would be disastrous" and would hurt researchers, educators and citizens, argued Adam Eisgrau, a Washington-based spokesman for the American Library Association.

"We recognize that there is a gap in protection [laws]," but any protection scheme must allow citizens to make reasonable use of information collected in databases, said Marybeth Peters, register of copyrights at the U.S. Copyright Office, based at the Library of Congress in Washington.

To establish a database protection law, the Washington-based Information Industry Association is following a two-track strategy. It is promoting draft legislation in Congress and backing a database proposal introduced by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for an upcoming international conference on intellectual property.

Congress's draft database bill, HR 3531, is sponsored by Rep. Carlos Moorhead, R-Calif., the soon-to-retire chairman of the intellectual property panel of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

The law would bar people from using database information "in a manner that conflicts with the database owner's normal exploitation of the database or adversely affects the actual or potential market for the databases," according to the bill. A database is defined as "a collection, assembly or compilation in any form or medium... of works, data or other materials, arranged in a systematic or methodical way." Each database would be protected by the law for 25 years after it was created or underwent a "change of commercial significance."

The draft law is similar to the proposal introduced by the Patent and Trademark Office for the Berne Convention of the 100-nation World Intellectual Property Organization to be held in Switzerland in December.

However, Moorhead's bill was not expected to make any progress this year, giving opponents time to press for modifications next year, said Eisgrau.

"The bill would trump copyright law," which is currently used to balance the rights of authors, publishers and software developers against the rights of citizens to view information, Eisgrau said. Under the proposed database law, citizens' rights to information would be constricted when a database owner has assembled a few facts in a database, he said. Also, the law may violate the U.S. Constitution by giving a company legal control over factual information stored in its database, despite a Supreme Court decision saying facts cannot be owned, he said. The Information Industry Association has yet to show "why such a radical change from current law is required," he said.

Also, the database plan may be opposed by information distributors, such as the communications companies who may get entangled in lawsuits over possible online violations of any protection law.

The Patent Office's Berne proposal may be defeated because it differs from the database law offered by the 15-nation European Union. The European law would limit the length of protection to 15 years after the database was created and would impose restrictions on the sale and use of databases containing personal information.


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