[AfrICANN-discuss] Copyright and time zones

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Wed Oct 12 13:45:37 SAST 2011

Copyright and time zones A virtual end of time

Oct 11th 2011, 15:36 by K.N.C. | TOKYO


  FOR years millions of the world's computers co-ordinated time-zone
differences by pointing to a not-for-profit database run by an American
university professor and a government researcher. But on October 6th (at
exactly 15:16:02 GMT) it was shut down, following a lawsuit claiming that
the database infringed copyright.

The "tz database" was used by computers running Unix, Linux, Java, Oracle,
as well as some web services, to determine the correct time for a given
location. It not only established current time-zone differences but
historical ones, too. (Such as when Britain adopted "double summer time"
during the second world war so factory lines would run longer.) Keeping the
database up to date meant between 20 and 100 modifications per year,
estimates Stephen Colebourne, a Java developer in London, in a blog
The data would be published as a set of files about 15 times a year.

It was so closely associated with its founders that it was also known as the
"Olson database", named after Arthur David Olson of America's National
Institutes of Health, who cobbled it together with Paul Eggert, a computer
scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The data files were
hosted on servers at both institutions. Both men were named in the suit, but
their organizations were not (perhaps because as government-backed bodies
they benefit from sovereign immunity against infringement claims).

In the suit filed on September 30th (and available
Astrolabe, a firm in Massachusetts, argued that it holds the licence to the
copyright of historical time-zone data from its "ACS Atlas", which the tz
database previously acknowledged as the source of its pre-1991 American
figures. It sought unspecified damages. Many developers would have assumed
that the material was either in the public domain or un-copyrightable
(because they are facts not expression) or covered under fair use. Yet by
yanking the database, the matter will not be tested in court.

Coincidentally, Mr Olson was planning to give up his role as the custodian
of the database and entrust it to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority
(IANA), which manages part of the internet's domain name system (as laid out
here <http://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-lear-iana-timezone-database-04>).
Whether that happens now is uncertain. The brouhaha seems yet another
example of the informality of the internet's early days—a chaotic,
open-source ethos that helped give rise to the network—threatened by
commercial interests and law (as our recent
report<http://www.economist.com/node/21530955> from
the Internet Governance Forum and leader<http://www.economist.com/node/21531011>

For now, firms that relied on the tz database will need to find an
alternative; some geeks are already busy thrashing out a
Yet chaos is unlikely to ensue: firms can simply stick with the latest
version of the time-zone file. One company that need not worry is Microsoft,
which already uses its own time-zone database—and would, no doubt, be only
too glad to flog it to others.
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