Congress Debates Database Protections

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Congress Debates Database Protections

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer

Congress has begun a slow-motion debate on a hot-button issue: whether to give databases new legal protections against theft or misuse.

The centerpiece of the debate is a draft bill introduced by Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the intellectual property panel of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

"We think it is a fairly balanced bill. People on both sides aren't overwhelmingly thrilled with it. ... It is a starting point" for legislators, companies and groups interested in the issue, said Vince Garlock, counsel for Coble's committee. The committee held an Oct. 23 hearing on the bill and plans to hold another hearing by February, he said.

The draft bill, titled the Collections of Information Antipiracy Act, would penalize companies or individuals if their use of a database for business purposes inflicts significant economic harm on the database's owner.

Opposition to the measure comes from librarians and university researchers, who say it could restrict access to much-needed information, including scientific and government data.

Although inventions are protected from theft by patent law, software is protected by copyright law and brand names are protected by trademark law, there is no legal protection for databases, said Dan Duncan, a lobbyist for the Washington-based Information Industry Association, which is the primary advocate for the bill. The IIA includes a variety of software and print publishers, such as The Washington Post Co., which owns this newspaper.

Without legal protections, database owners are seeing their property copied and resold by rivals, said Duncan. This hurts the growth of the database industry and online commerce, and also curbs the creation and use of potentially valuable databases, he said.

Although companies have asked the courts to protect databases from misuse, judges are reluctant to extend copyright protection to databases, partly because databases consist of facts that cannot be copyrighted, Duncan said.

To avoid this problem, the IIA would like to see Congress create a new form of intellectual property for databases akin to trademark law, said Duncan. The bill is a starting point for negotiations, he said, adding that it includes many features intended to meet objections to a draft database bill introduced in 1996 by Coble.

But "the need for such database protection has not been demonstrated," said Barbara Ford, president of the Chicago-based American Library Association, which testified against the bill in the Oct. 23 hearing.

"Whatever the mechanism for protecting databases, we would want to ensure, as much as possible, full and open access at minimal cost to scientific information," said Mark Frankel, director of the program on scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science. Also, the measure should not restrict access to databases created with government funds, he said, adding that "there is going to be a lot of debate and deliberation."

"The chairman wants to be very deliberate in moving this bill," Garlock said.

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