While the recording industry’s battle against Napster grabs headlines, publishers of online databases are turning up the volume as they push for legislation to protect copyrights on their content. And Congress is listening. Earlier this spring, the heads of two key panels, Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and William Tauzin (R-La.), leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said they’ll push for a measure that toughens protections against data piracy.The publishers want to extend existing copyright laws to the information in commercial databases, allowing database creators to sue people or companies they think are illegally reselling their products. Keith Kupferschmid, a lawyer with the Software & Information Industries Association (SIIA), which represents the publishers, says a new law is needed because the Internet makes it easy to steal and resell information that database publishers package. A bill making database piracy illegal, sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) and supported by SIIA, died last year because of opposition from consumer groups and news organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA) and the Bloomberg Financial Markets news service.
While the ALA agrees data shouldn’t be pirated, its legislative counsel, Miriam Nisbet, says Coble’s measure went too far. She says it would have prohibited many legitimate uses of databases that are covered by current laws on “fair use” of copyrighted information, such as downloading news articles or financial data for research. The ALA supported a less restrictive bill introduced by former Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) that also went nowhere.
Now both sides are moving toward a compromise. Kupferschmid and Nisbet each say any legislation protecting database copyrights should let people use the information in databases as long as they don’t resell it. Apparently so thinks Coble, who as chairman of the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, is Sensenbrenner’s point man for this issue. Coble’s press secretary, Ed McDonald, says Coble is working on a compromise that focuses on the fair use of databases. McDonald says Coble doesn’t want to restrict dissemination of information like stocks or financial statistics.