March 04, 2004

But Can I Buy a Vowel?

This is probably one of the more politically-oriented posts I've made since the inception of the LawTech Guru blog, but I feel strongly about it and this is my soapbox. Wired News has a report on the proposed "Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act ".

"Ostensibly, the Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act (HR3261) makes it a crime for anyone to copy and redistribute a substantial portion of data collected by commercial database companies and list publishers. But critics say the bill would give the companies ownership of facts -- stock quotes, historical health data, sports scores and voter lists. The bill would restrict the kinds of free exchange and shared resources that are essential to an informed citizenry, opponents say."

How much is a "substantial portion"? How will this affect access to otherwise publicly available information?

Not surprisingly, "[t]he bill's biggest backers are the Software and Information Industry Association; Reed Elsevier, which owns the LexisNexis database; and Westlaw, the biggest publisher of legal databases."

Per the article, "...[c]ritics say that letting companies own facts would take information out of the public domain and make it accessible only to those who could afford it. They also say that copyright laws and usage agreements already protect databases."

Don't get me wrong, as database collators and publishers should have reasonable protections. After all, many have invested millions or more to build up their database and service offerings. However, the underlying facts need to be FREE. Here's a potentially scary consequence of this bill:

"But Joe Rubin, executive director of technology and e-commerce for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says the bill's threshold for proving 'commercial harm' is very low.

He cited the example of a financial planner who gathers information from several sources, like Securities and Exchange Commission filings, public documents and the Dun & Bradstreet business database.

'If he assimilated the information and put it into a report for his client, under this bill that activity would be illegal and would subject him to lawsuits from every company whose website he accessed,' Rubin said."

I can think of many researchers and research projects in many contexts that could fun afoul of this logic, and not just in the legal market. Some additional comments are found at John Battelle's Searchblog. If accurate, it certainly sounds like there is much reason for concern. It just goes to show how "disruptive" search engines, news aggregators, and the Internet as a whole has been to the status quo in leveling the playing field. The established giants are probably scared. Hey, if you can't beat 'em under the free market, then change all the rules?

I'm not a copyright lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. Instead I'm asserting my right to free speech to discuss and debate the consequences of this proposed legislation: To me it just doesn't pass the smell test. If they're having trouble competing with their already monstrous resources, then just maybe there is a better mousetrap out there, and they need to adapt to survive. Perhaps that's why people like Batelle are saying big businesses should try changing their business models before artificially manipulating laws to retain a stranglehold.

This should sound familiar. Remember the DMCA? On the face of it, HR3261 quacks like a duck regarding the comparisons to the ill-considered DMCA, and look where that got us: amongst others, grandparents and housing project minor children getting sued. One of the problems is the net was cast too wide, and too many "unintended consequences" were the result -- and I'm far from the first one to arrive at that opinion. (For example, one can make an archival backup of normal non-copyprotected audio CDs, but not of CSS-protected DVDs for the same personal purpose. Just ask 321 Studios about that one.)

Vastly improved search tools and news aggregators have finally delivered "equal access" to information, which was one of the founding principles of the Internet. I'm not exactly thrilled that big business once again wants to put their finger in the dyke and hold us back. Changing laws to artificially protect archaic business methods isn't progress. Dinosaurs shouldn't try to change the environment backward -- instead they need to adapt to the new one if they truly wish to survive in the long haul.

Topic(s):   Other Musings
Posted by Jeff Beard
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