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Congress questions database protection proposal

By , IDG News Service
September 24, 2003 09:32 AM ET

IDG News Service - Draft legislation that would strengthen some copyright-like protections on the contents of commercial databases Tuesday met with skepticism from members of two U.S. House subcommittees, despite proponents saying creators of databases need more protection against competitors pilfering the information after all the hard work has been done.

The Database and Collections of Information Misappropriations Act, yet to be introduced in the House, would allow owners of commercial databases to sue anyone who sells portions of their databases, if those databases contain time-sensitive material and the owner incurred a "substantial" cost when generating or maintaining the material. But opponents of the draft bill, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Association of American Universities, questioned the need for a new law, with some saying existing copyright and other laws already protect most databases.

"We have the benefit of contract, intellectual property, copyright, state misappropriation, trespass and federal computer anti-hijacking statutes and numerous other protections that are on the books," testified Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, during a congressional hearing. "This is a solution in search of a problem, and we ought to be very careful about that."

But others argued that current U.S. law, particularly copyright law, is weak in protecting the sometimes noncreative work that goes into gathering and maintaining a database. A new law is needed to protect the "immeasurable" value that exists in databases owned by U.S. companies against "free-riders" who would take that information, said Keith Kupferschmid, vice president of intellectual property policy and enforcement for the Software and Information Industry Association.

Although Donohue questioned if there was a groundswell of support for new database legislation, Kupferschmid listed at least four recent court cases where the owners of databases lost lawsuits to competitors using their information without permission. In one case, he said, a competitor copied close to three-quarters of a company's school information database and posted the information on the Internet, helping to drive the original database owner out of the database business.

"With the Internet and advances in new technology, databases can be easily stolen and made available to others," said Kupferschmid, testifying for the Coalition Against Database Piracy, a coalition of database producers. "Clearly there is a definite and significant need for database protection legislation."

The draft legislation could give database creators incentives to keep producing new products, added Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property.

"In cyberspace, technological developments represent a threat as well as an opportunity for collections of information," Smith said. "Copying factual material from a third party's collection, and rearranging it to form a competing information product is cheaper and easier than ever."

Kupferschmid's written testimony listed about 80 companies and organizations that support "meaningful" database antipiracy legislation, including eBay, FreeAdvice.com, and Monster.com. But Donohue argued that his organization's 3 million members overwhelmingly didn't support database protection legislation, and the handful of court cases Kupferschmid listed did not show a widespread problem.

"This issue is so small compared to everything else," Donohue said. "I would not argue that you somewhere could find someone who was injured. We don't think this legislation is going to help, and what is going to do is define an opportunity for certain class-action or mass-action lawyers."

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