Vote Approaching on Data Base Protection Legislation

Volume 16, Number 1, March 2000

By Joseph King

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences convenes a meeting approximately annually of the directors of federally-funded National Data Centers, U.S. World Data Centers, and the EOSDIS Distributed Active Archive Centers. The most recent such meeting was hosted by NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) in Boulder, Colorado, on March 20-21, 2000. It was attended by data center directors from NASA, NOAA, USGS, Columbia University, and the Universities of Colorado and Alaska, including this author. Most of the data centers represent various types of data relevant to the Earth science enterprise. NSSDC and the Solar Terrestrial Physics Division of NGDC handle space science data (mostly from space and ground observatories, respectively). Columbia University (CIESIN) handles mostly socioeconomic data.

Key issues addressed at the meeting included the status and potential impact of pending legislation on "data base protection", the impact on data centers and their user communities of restrictions on obtaining and distributing data from foreign and private-sector sources, and complements between and relative roles of commercial companies generating and/or distributing data and federally-funded data centers.

The second and third of these are primarily relevant to the Earth science enterprise wherein the government has certain motivations (understanding the Earth system and using that understanding for societal good) while the private sector is motivated by potential profit associated with the commercial relevance of Earth data. The government and the private sector are interested in each other's data since such data are often relevant to both groups' motivations. There have been to date no commercial programs generating observational data of obvious relevance to NSSDC's space science domain.

The data base protection legislation has generated a great deal of interest, with long lists of companies and other organizations on record as supporting and opposing the legislation. There are two proposed laws pending which would, in different ways, extend copyright laws protecting creative material to further protect compilations of data created without creative dimensions but with "sweat of the brow"; for example, telephone yellow pages may be copyrighted because the illustrations, layouts, etc., involve creativity, but white pages may not be copyrighted although their compilation involves the "sweat of the brow." The protection of white-pages-like compilations is the intent of the new legislation.

The first law, HR 354, has an emphasis on protection, with limited exceptions for some research and other uses. The second, HR 1585, has an emphasis on data base users and specifies prohibitions only on uses intended as economically competitive with the data base creator. The first of these was introduced in the House Judiciary Committee in January 1999, the latter in the House Commerce Committee in May 1999. The first is well supported by the publishing industry and others and is likely to be the first (if not only) bill to be voted on this spring. It is generally opposed by library and scientific organizations.

These bills are successors to yet more restrictive data base legislation introduced in 1996 and 1997 that did not pass into law. The United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) may take its cue in defining an international data base protection treaty according to which of the two pending bills (if either) is passed into law in the U.S. Both bills exempt government data from their purview, so the adverse impact of data access/use restrictions on Earth science research may be greater than for space science research. As noted above, Earth science uses a greater admixture of public- and private-generated data than space science, which currently is almost solely based on data produced by governments. Nevertheless this legislation should be of interest to all research scientists, and it should be of interest to NSSDC's "general public" customers accessing planetary imagery and other data.

A more extensive discussion of the pending legislation, its history, and its relation to WIPO and to the 1996 data-access-restricting Data Base Directive of the European union has been prepared by Dr. Anne Linn of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and is available by clicking here. Discussion of HR 354 from the perspective of a consortium of proponents is available by clicking here.

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Author:Miranda Beall
Curator:Lori Persichitti
Responsible Official: Dr. Joseph H. King, Code 633
Last Revised: 16 May 2000 [NAB]