Time runs out for timezone database

Stars misaligned for critical reference

The database that all Linux and UNIX-based platforms and many time-based applications use to keep track of the ever-changing global timezones has been shut down, due to a copyright lawsuit leveled at the unpaid maintainers of the database.

The database itself is maintained at, of all places, the National Institutes of Health, kept current through the unsung work of Alfred Olson and Paul Eggert. Both Olson and Eggert are named as defendants in a suit filed by Massachusetts-based Astrolabe, Inc., which produces astrology software.

That's not a misprint.

Apparently, Astrolabe purchased the rights to the ACS International and American Atlases, and now is the sole copyright owner of those publications and their databases. Held in those databases is historical and current time zone information that Astrolabe accuses the maintainers of the timezone database of pilfering.

According to the lawsuit, the two men have infringed on the copyright of Astrolabe's work by providing this data to outside users, thus cutting into Astrolabe's business. Based on the wording of the lawsuit, it seems that Olson and Eggert first responded to Astrolabe's May, 2011 take-down notice by asserting that timezone data, being comprised of factual information, is not copyrightable and therefore falls under public domain.

The impact of the Oct. 6 court-ordered shutdown of the timezone database is very significant: every Linux distro and UNIX flavor (including BSD-based Mac OS X) taps into this database as a reference point for timezones, which change more often around the world than you might think. Any application that needs time-based information will also reference this database.

Windows applications and the operating itself are not affected, as Microsoft keeps its own timezone database.

With the database out of commission for now as the lawsuit progresses, anyone who uses this database will have to update their local copies themselves. This may prove extremely difficult, since without a central resource to check against, I cannot imagine gaps between data sets won't crop up. Plus, if Astrolabe is feeling particularly litigious, and there's evidence that they are, who's to stop them from going after other maintainers of this data?

Complicating this situation is that there seems to be direct evidence within the database itself that the ACS Atlases were directly used as a guide for the historical timezone data.

In the database files, for instance, is this note:

From Paul Eggert (2006-03-22):
A good source for time zone historical data in the US is
Thomas G. Shanks, The American Atlas (5th edition),
San Diego: ACS Publications, Inc. (1991).
Make sure you have the errata sheet; the book is somewhat useless without it.
It is the source for most of the pre-1991 US entries below.

There are other examples throughout the data that make it clear the Atlases were being used as the reference in some cases.

Since the Atlases, now owned by Astrolabe, are clearly being referenced, now the arguments against Astrolabe will be, can someone own the copyrights to historical, factual data? Past lawsuits would seem to indicate no. You can't copyright the phone book, for instance. But can you copyright information that someone went to a lot of trouble to research and compile?

Beyond just the direct implications of the timezone database shutdown, Linux and Android observers should take note of this case as well. The recent use of the factual-data-is-noncopyrightable argument in defense of the screeds that the Linux kernel headers are somehow being infringed by Android could get some legal boosting should the court find in favor of the defendants.

In the meantime, it would be nice to get a "clean" central copy of the database up and running as quickly as possible. A large vendor like HP, Dell, or IBM would be a good candidate for this, and would certainly win a lot of goodwill from the developer community. Or maybe Microsoft could do the right thing and properly open up access to its own database.

Hopefully someone will step up, because time has run out for the timezone database for now, and a solution needs to be found fast.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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