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Database Vendors: Dumb, Dying, Reactive, Dangerous…

By - March 04, 2004

This sure feels familiar. Owners of large database businesses, who have been coining cash for decades based on the model of aggregating freely available information, then monopolizing access to and distribution of that information, have finally realized that their business is imperiled by search engines and the web. So they’re pushing shitty legislation through Congress, just like Hollywood did with the DMCA. This is an important issue, well summarized in this Wired News story.

In essence, a bill winding its way through the House (HR3261) would redefine databases in such a way as to extend the owners of those databases far more power over how information could be used. This is a very bad thing. It’s part of the same creeping copyright chill driven by the MPAA and RIAA. This time, it’s Reed Elsevier and Westlaw, et al. Instead of figuring out new distribution and business models, these old line businesses are forcing Congress to do their bidding so they can sue their way into continued existence. It’s depressing, but it’s not surprising. From the story:

Imagine doing a Google search for a phone number, weather report or sports score. The results page would be filled with links to various sources of information. But what if someone typed in keywords and no results came back?

That’s the scenario critics are painting of a new bill wending its way through Congress that would let certain companies own facts, and exact a fee to access them.

….Art Brodsky, spokesman for public advocacy group Public Knowledge, says the bill would let anyone drop a fact into a database or a collection of materials and claim monopoly rights to it. This would contradict the core principle of the Copyright Act, which states that mere information and ideas cannot be protected works.

Under the terms of the broadly written bill, a public-health website could be deemed in violation of the law for gathering a list of the latest health headlines and providing links to them on its home page.

Google would be in violation for trolling media databases and providing stories on its news page.

An encyclopedia site not only could own the historical facts contained in its online entries, but could do so long after the copyright on authorship of the written entries had expired. Unlike copyright, which expires 70 years after the death of a work’s author, the Misappropriation Act doesn’t designate an expiration date.

“The law of unintended consequences in this case has the potential to be huge,” Brodsky said.

If this bums you out, then get smart on it, and do something about it

(thanks, Cory)

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One thought on “Database Vendors: Dumb, Dying, Reactive, Dangerous…

  1. The Kaiser says:

    I think some commentators are focusing on what was a mis-reading of the bill – as I read it, the bill is intended to prevent ripping off a database as a whole (or substantially, the text of the act reading “quantitatively substantial part of the information in a database”), and includes specific exceptions for hyperlinking. It’s analagous to the European Community Database Directive.

    If it does have the effect described above, that would be terrible – but then again, under US copyright law alone, a data aggregator is left somewhat naked in that the effort it puts into collecting and organizing data isn’t clearly protected (e.g., a search engine’s database).

    On the topic of the obnoxious database vendors, one thing to note is there are a couple of small vendors who have been starting to take business from Westlaw and their ilk. One example is LocatePLUS. Westlaw charges subscription fees to access the database, then charging per-query. LocatePLUS has focused on getting a toehold on a smaller market to start (law enforcement), and is charging relatively small amounts solely on a per-query basis, and taking business from the big guys. From reading their public filings it also appears they’ve also invested heavily in technology/infrastructure, allowing users to get real-time results, which Westlaw (as I can attest as a former user) in many cases has to batch-process and return later. Who knows if the little guys can actually get any real traction, but it’s nice to see a little free-market action in the field.