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Internet

Who owns information?

Like the California gold rush, the race to make money in cyberspace has prompted charges of claim-jumping on the virtual frontier, sparking a struggle between the profit needs of copyright holders and the rights of the public to "fair use" of proprietary materials.

    Like the California gold rush, the race to make money in cyberspace has prompted charges of claim-jumping on the virtual frontier, sparking a struggle between the profit needs of copyright holders and the rights of the public to "fair use" of proprietary materials.

    The Clinton administration threw consumers a bone today when it suggested that both concerns should be balanced against one another and that "fair use" should be preserved in the electronic age. The stand represents a turnaround for the administration. Through the Patents and Trademarks Office under Commissioner Bruce Lehman, the White House has in the past advocated strong new rules that protect the interests of credit reporting agencies, media companies, software companies, entertainment giants, and others at what some say comes at the expense of the rest of society.

    Just how that balance will be accomplished, however, remains a mystery, since copyright holders have steadfastly insisted it is their right to severely curtail or completely deny fair use access to their works.

    The paper also indicated a more wary approach to the radical idea of copyrighting collections of facts in order to protect database compilers. At the World Intellectual Property meeting earlier this year, the United States pushed the idea of allowing database compilers to copyright collections of facts that haven't qualified for protection in the past because they didn't use any art in their collections or arrangements.

    The measure failed after an outpouring of objection from libraries, consumer groups, and research scientists. Most said the so-called sui generis protections would cut off the flow of information vital to a free and democratic society and the advancement of humanity. The National Research Council warned in a 200-page report released in April that sui generis database rights would create monopolies in scientific databases, even those created with public funds, and endanger basic research.

    However, Clinton said the administration hadn't given up on providing sui generis protections to databases. It simply promised to seek more input on the idea from both critics and supporters before moving forward on supporting a sui generis rule.

    The paper also advocates stronger patent protections and better patent-clearing mechanisms for software, both in the United States and in the rest of the world. But that measure is likely to meet with some problems internationally. An English court recently ruled that software couldn't be patented. In addition, a small but dedicated band of U.S. programmers has been fighting the concept of patenting software. Patents not only add another needless layer of protection on top of copyright protection but can lock up software innovation, according to patent foes like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation.

    Software patents have also proved troublesome in the past because of inexperienced examiners that tend to grant broad patents. For example, people have successfully filed patents covering multimedia programs and the concept of a Web browser. Clinton proposed beefing up examiners' training to correct these problems.

    The administration also chimed in on the issue of trademarks and Internet domain names. Though locators such as Internet domain names have never been trademarkable in the past, the administration said they now should be protected as intellectual property. Disputes should be settled in the courts or by negotiation, the paper suggested, denting the hopes of those who want to see the domain name system decoupled from trademarks. 

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