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U.S. backs off database treaty

The United States will not give its blessing to a controversial database copyright treaty.

The United States will not give its blessing to a controversial database copyright treaty under consideration at the World Intellectual Property Organization conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

"We'll engage in dialogue about the database issue in Geneva, but it may not yet be ripe," said Greg Simon, chief domestic policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore. Simon acknowledged that the treaty needs to be debated at greater length at home before the United States commits itself to signing an international treaty on the subject.

A spokeswoman from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) confirmed that Commissioner Bruce Lehman, head of the U.S. delegation in Geneva, has acknowledged that due to the level of opposition to the database treaty, the delegation will concentrate its efforts on the other treaties currently being debated in the three-week conference.

The so-called sui generis database treaty would allow owners of databases, including those hosting scientific research and sports scores, to protect the information contained within the database by allowing them to copyright facts. For example, the National Basketball Association would like to copyright game scores--data that can be instantly transmitted all over the world via the Internet--but it would rather save the scores for those who have licensed rights to them.

The proposed treaty has drawn the fire of educators, librarians, scientists, and even corporate owners of information such as Dun & Bradstreet, who fear the treaty would create a barrier around information normally considered in the public domain.

The treaty has in fact drawn so much fire from so many sources that the Clinton administration decided to back off from it for the time being. Without a big U.S. push, the database treaty is unlikely to be approved by the rest of the organization.

The change in strategy is a turnaround for the administration, which had hoped Congress would pass similar legislation on the home front. The bill, commonly known as the National Information Infrastructure Copyright Act, failed earlier this year when Congress realized that the proposed laws dealing with copyright in cyberspace were premature.

After Congress's rebuff, the adminstration, along with PTO commissioner Lehman, tailored the main elements of the NII Copyright Act and presented them as amendments to international copyright law. That move set the current diplomatic conference into motion, a move that critics say is a fast-track attempt to circumvent domestic debate.

While acknowledging the need for more discussion about databases, Simon also said that the White House, represented in Geneva by Commissioner Lehman, is still supporting the first two treaties that define who is liable for the online transmission of infringing material.

One of the two, dubbed the New Instrument treaty, also defines copyright issues outside the digital realm, such as the rights of performers in the entertainment industries, something the United States and the European Union don't see eye to eye on.

Language in the first treaty is under attack in Geneva from commercial online service providers like AT&T and noncommercial providers such as schools and libraries. They argue that the proposed language would make those who provide Internet access as liable as the senders and receivers of infringing materials.

In other words, if you download a copyrighted image and post it to your own Web site, then both you and your ISP would be liable, and so perhaps would be the telecommunications company that runs the specific trunk of Internet backbone that carried the information. Consequently, none of the treaties are sure bets, even with the support of the United States.

All three, for example, are opposed by delegates from newly industrialized and developing countries, who feel left out of the debate and that copyright protection only benefits holders of intellectual property in highly industrialized societies.

A partial draft released today at the conference of amendments to all three treaties had delegates from Africa, Asia, and Latin America up in arms. Representing roughly half the voting members, the delegates accused conference chairman Jukka Liedes of Finland of ignoring their suggestions.

The harshness of the verbal attack was uncharacteristic for the staid diplomatic venue, said Seth Greenstein, a attorney for the Electronic Industries Association and an observer of the proceedings. Ratification of the treaties will require a two-thirds majority, so the dissenting blocs could conceivably unite to defeat the ratification.

If adopted, the amendments would be wrapped up in a new version of the treaties next week.

Critics in both industrialized and nonindustrialized countries are accusing PTO commissioner Lehman of representing only the interests of U.S. copyright holders--that is, information publishers--and not necessarily online users. But Lehman told the conference on Wednesday that the United States wanted the treaties to extend fair-use laws to cyberspace, meaning that certain information in the public domain could be redistributed without permission.

"Lehman's statements on this have had a big impact on preserving fair use in the digital environment," Greenstein said.

Delegates are also still debating if material in temporary memory or cached on a server for more efficient transmission can be protected under copyright law.