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Database debate heard in Congress

The concerns of the academic and scientific communities about the availability of information is weighed against database companies' right to profit.

Legislation to protect the hard work and deep pockets of electronic database companies is being debated in Congress, with those in the academic and science communities throwing up red flags.

From medical journal articles to nationwide court rulings, electronic databases organize, aggregate, and update what often is public information. Database creators usually don't own the copyrights on the material they catalog; instead, the value of their business is making the most current news and research instantly available to paying customers. But with the proliferation of the Internet and CD-ROMs, which make copying data a cinch, those with heavy investments in digital databases want new protections for their products.

Earlier this month, Rep. Howard Coble (R-North Carolina) introduced what he hopes is the solution. The Collections of Information Antipiracy Act would make it illegal to extract information from a database and make it available elsewhere, if such an act would "harm" the database company's current or potential market. Violators could be fined up to $250,000 or imprisoned for a maximum of five years. However, the bill doesn't restrict nonprofit, educational, scientific, and research uses of databases.

"The balance provides adequate protection to ensure there is an incentive for companies to invest in the development of collections of information, without inhibiting members of the scientific, library, and research communities from carrying on their work," stated Coble, who heads the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property, which held hearings on his bill yesterday.

"In the event a person misappropriates a substantial portion of another's collection of information to the extent it will harm the original collector's ability to compete, the misappropriation would be subject to injunction and damages," he added during opening statements.

But Coble's bill is not striking the compromise everyone is seeking. Some say the bill will give current and future database owners indefinite control over the information they harness. Coble's bill doesn't set a time line for when database contents will revert back to the public domain, which opponents contend is a major flaw.

"They don't ever want the data to become public domain--ever," Jerome Reichman, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, said today.

Reichman testified before the committee yesterday, and this year cowrote an article on the issue with Pamela Samuelson, a professor in the information technology and law schools at the University of California at Berkeley.

Both opposed last year's defeated Database Investment and Intellectual Property Antipiracy Act on grounds that it would have allowed the privatization of public information. Samuelson told NEWS.COM in an interview earlier this month that Coble's bill was an improvement.

However, despite the fact that Coble's bill allows exceptions for academia and science researchers, prices will still be left up to the companies, Reichman argued.

"We are concerned that the cost of research and education is still going to skyrocket," he added. "The free and open flow of data benefits technological production, and that is why we are the world's greatest producer of technology. They can't own the building blocks of knowledge."

He says a fair law would give protection for one or two years against wholesale duplication of information in a database. "After that fixed period of years, they shouldn't be able to deny access, but charge equitable compensation, with lower rates for science and education. As it reaches a certain age, however, the old stuff should become public domain."

Others who testified on behalf of database companies agreed that any public policy must balance the interests of database producers and users. The big decision Congress has to make is how long database protection will last.

"From an economic point of view, all databases are costly to produce but easy to reproduce or copy," Laura D'Andrea Tyson, a representative of the Information Industry Association told the committee in her written testimony. "The shorter the period of protection, the greater the incentive of producers to set high prices to try to recoup their investment during the allotted time."

However, she noted that a time limit would not necessarily reflect the economic value of a certain database. "If statutory protection for databases were provided for 25 years, the 1997 edition of a database would become available for copying by competitors in 2022. If in 2022 there were a market for the 1997 edition, a potential competitor could make a copy of it and compete with its original developer."

Yesterday, Coble promised to hold as least one other hearing on this legislation early next year, disputing rumors that it was on a "fast track" toward passage.