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NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL OPPOSES H.R. 354

The New York Times published the following editorial on Monday, November 15, 1999, entitled "Fair Use of Databases"

The House of Representatives is considering legislation designed to protect databases, or collections of facts or data, from misappropriation. The issue is increasingly important because electronic databases have become integral to all kinds of commercial and educational activities on the Internet. Many database owners want a federal law to ensure that their data collections are not duplicated and sold by others trying to get a free ride on what they spent time and money to compile. But in protecting the labors of database owners, Congress must be careful not to limit the use of facts that should remain in the public domain, a restriction that could be far worse than any problem the legislation is seeking to cure.

Databases already enjoy some protections. Many states have misappropriation laws that can be used to bar database piracy, while federal copyright law affords protection to the expression, selection and arrangement of facts within a database, but not, it must be stressed, to the facts themselves.

H.R. 354, a bill sponsored by Representative Howard Coble, leans too much in the direction of protecting the proprietary interests of database owners at the expense of keeping facts in the public domain. The bill would deter database piracy by imposing new federal civil and criminal penalties. But its broad language goes too far in limiting the reuse of factual information contained in a protected database, and in allowing a database owner to control future uses of that information.

The bill would prohibit most users of a database from making available information from that collection of data if the action would cause financial harm to the original database publisher. This could deter innovators from building new and better databases by recombining, culling or adding information to existing databases. The exceptions allowing reuse of data in certain situations, such as for nonprofit educational and news reporting purposes, are not enough to keep full access to facts open.

The bill would not apply to databases collected or maintained by government, but officials at the National Academy of Sciences have expressed fears that the bill could hamper scientific research as well as hurt competition in the commercial database industry. Universities, libraries, telecommunications companies and a broad array of Internet businesses are opposed to the bill. The United States Chamber of Commerce also has expressed serious concerns. A competing bill, H.R. 1858, sponsored by Representative Thomas Bliley, offers a better approach. It would prohibit wholesale database duplication and sale, but would allow the reuse of factual information. It could be further strengthened by allowing private lawsuits against violators in the federal courts. Database creators should be able to benefit from their labors, but they should not be granted new rights that would allow them to control how others use the information in new ways.

Copyright (c) 1999 The New York Times Company
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