The fierce debate over the copyrighting of databases may have taken a significant step toward compromise with a little-known bill just introduced in Congress.
The Collections of Information Antipiracy Act, introduced yesterday by Rep. Howard Coble (R-North Carolina), would outlaw the misappropriation of information in databases. It appears to differ significantly from last session's copyright legislation, which was shot down amid loud opposition from civil libertarians who argued that it would allow the privatization of public information.
Academics, librarians, and consumer advocates warned that the previous legislation would erode individuals' rights to use information such as government data and small portions of published articles. The Software Publishers Association and the Business Software Association and others argued that, without the law, the ease of copying digital information would bankrupt companies.
Unlike its predecessor, however, Coble's bill permits nonprofit educational, scientific, and research uses of databases without the owners' consent. It also permits the use of information for news-gathering purposes and allows commercial competitors to use "an individual item of information or another insubstantial part of a collection of information."
It remains unclear how the new legislation will be received. Most of the parties contacted today by CNET's NEWS.COM said they had not yet studied the bill and therefore did not have an opinion on it.
But Pamela Samuelson, who fiercely opposed last year's database bill, said there are a number of items that make the bill more palatable.
"My first read is that it is certainly more balanced and has a better approach," said Samuelson, a professor in the information technology and law schools at the University of California at Berkeley. Samuelson added the bill was "encouraging, but I think there are still some places where its protection may not strike the right balance."
Particularly, she faulted the bill for still attempting to regulate how someone may use information and for failing to define what substantial or insubstantial uses may be, saying that both could lead to a chilling effect.
"This bill is a minimalist approach...as a complement to copyright [law] and addresses the damage that can be done from substantial copying of collections of information," Coble wrote in a statement introducing the bill in the House.
Last session's bill, dubbed the Database Investment and Intellectual Property Antipiracy Act of 1996, contained no provisions for not-for-profit use. It eventually was defeated, as was a similar treaty proposal considered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, in the face of opposition from freedom-of-information advocates.