January 21, 2004 5:25 PM PST

Tech firms fail to squelch database bill

A congressional panel on Wednesday approved a proposal to curb database copying, ignoring the objections of technology companies that launched a last-minute lobbying campaign to kill the proposal.

By a 16-7 vote, the House Judiciary committee approved an intellectual property bill that had been opposed by Amazon.com, AT&T, Comcast, Google, Yahoo and some Internet service provider associations.

The proposal, backed by big database companies such as Reed Elsevier and Thomson, would extend to databases the same kind of protection that copyrighted works such as music, literature and movies currently enjoy. Its supporters say that such protection is necessary to stop rivals from extracting information from proprietary databases like Reed Elsevier's LexisNexis service instead of going through the far more expensive process of compiling it themselves.

The loosely organized technology coalition opposed to the proposal had stepped up its lobbying efforts in the days leading up to the committee vote, joined by library and civil liberties groups.

"Proponents of the bill have yet to offer a convincing case that existing federal and state laws, including federal copyright law, federal antihacking prohibitions, and a variety of state contract and tort laws, are insufficient to provide database producers with adequate protection," the coalition said in a letter last week. "They have certainly failed to demonstrate a problem that would justify the fundamental and constitutionally suspect changes to our nation's information policy called for in the legislation."

One of the most vocal opponents of the bill has been the venerable U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which argued that database owners already have the ability to protect their property through contracts and terms-of-service agreements. In its own letter to Congress, the Chamber predicted that a financial analyst with access to Dun & Bradstreet databases could violate the law by including that information in a report prepared for a client, as could a research chemist who wishes to reproduce information on the effectiveness of new pharmaceuticals.

The Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act of 2003 does not include criminal penalties. Rather, it allows the database owner to sue in civil court "any person who makes available in commerce to others a quantitatively substantial part of the information in a database." There are limited exemptions for educational and research organizations and for journalists.

The bill, backed by Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., also is controversial because, critics say, it would sidestep a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said facts could not be copyrighted.

Wednesday's vote follows a 10-3 vote last October in a subcommittee. Now the measure likely will go to the House floor in preparation for a possible vote.

 

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