Critics Fear Database Bill Will Hinder Research

Critics warn that under new federal legislation, writers and Web designers could be hauled into court over something as simple as publishing a list of local sporting events or creating a Web site offering consumers price comparisons on car parts.

Though the Database and Collections of Information Misappropriations Act (search) was only introduced Thursday, special interests have been lining up on either side to sing its praises or curse its existence.

The legislation, crafted by members of the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees, seeks to place legal protections on online and offline databases. In short, the measures contained in the bill would prevent the reproduction of information gathered in databases for commercial and competitive purposes.

“Given the important role that databases play in our capital markets, law enforcement, and science and research, it is critical that database producers be able to protect their investments from free riders and pernicious commercial exploitation,” said Keith Kupferschmid, vice president of the Software and Information Industry Association (search), and one of the witnesses asked to testify last month about the proposed legislation.

Kupferschmid, whose association represents companies that maintain huge databases and publishing houses like LexisNexis and Thomson Publishing, said database protections would ensure that the industry, which has grown dramatically since the advent of the Internet (search), would continue to flourish.

“These companies and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to collect and organize information contained in thousands of databases,” he said. “These investments are worthy and deserving of protection.”

But opponents say the encroaching legislation would prevent scientists from engaging in research and children from doing book reports. The legislation is so broadly written, critics say, that college professors writing research papers based on scientific databases or non-profit organizations publishing statistics on their Web sites could be subject to penalties.

“If you check out a book from the library, all the data in that book would be protected,” said Joe Rubin, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (search), which has come out against the measure.

"What we’re seeing is a flawed concept,” said Kevin McGuiness, executive director of NetCoalition (search), a group of technology companies, including Internet service providers, who don’t want to be held liable if protected information is made available online under new regulations.

“The bill still lacks two key ingredients — a problem to fix and a justifiable solution,” said McGuiness, who acknowledged that while intellectual property is protected under a series of existing laws, the dispute continues over whether compiled data can be copyrighted or is part of the public domain.

The American Civil Liberties Union (search) and the American Library Association (search), have also joined the debate, saying the measure would likely be unconstitutional.

But Mark Bohannan, a senior vice president of SIAA, said the language is not as vague as its opponents are making it out to be, and that it only prevents commercial use of republished data, and makes exemptions for data uses by non-profits, scientific and research organizations, and most news reporting.

Proponents insist the new law is meant to prevent someone from making a quick buck off of information compiled and sold through fee-for-service entities like LexisNexis (search). LexisNexis, for a subscription price, offers everything from extensive news archives to an online law library.

"What our folks are looking for is to make sure that when a company has invested time and resources into developing a quality database that there’s no free riding going on, that they won't be purloined or pirated in a way that hurts their investment," Bohannon said.

Rubin said in 15 years there have been no serious cases in which databases were badly breached, but in the last several years, companies have recognized the value of putting a price tag on data.

“Owners of archival databases want to extract more rent for the use of their databases,” he said, adding that lawyers have discovered "an easy retirement plan" from the massive litigation that could be brought under the broad authority of the law.

Staff members on both committees admit hashing out the language of the bill has been a “squabble,” and not necessarily along party lines, either.

While Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., have been generally receptive to pulling together some sort of compromise legislation to protect databases, others think Congress is way off the mark in this regard.

“I believe that Congress should not create property rights in facts,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who added that the terms may be so ambiguous as to put a “chill” on the development of new databases, as well as research.