Time runs out for timezone lawsuit

Lawsuit against maintainers dismissed, apology issued

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is touting a victory in a copyright lawsuit that had the potential to shut down the database that all Linux and UNIX-based platforms and many time-based applications use to keep track of the ever-changing global timezones.

In September 2011, the suit was brought against Alfred Olson and Paul Eggert, who maintained the timezone database at the National Institutes of Health, by Massachusetts-based Astrolabe, Inc., which produces astrology software. According to a press release from the EFF, Astrolabe has apparently withdrawn the lawsuit, agreed to a covenant not to sue, and has issued an apology to all involved.

"In a statement, Astrolabe said, 'Astrolabe's lawsuit against Mr. Olson and Mr. Eggert was based on a flawed understanding of the law. We now recognize that historical facts are no one's property and, accordingly, are withdrawing our Complaint. We deeply regret the disruption that our lawsuit caused for the volunteers who maintain the TZ database, and for Internet users.'"

Originally, Astrolabe sued Olson and Eggert because they had purchased the rights to the ACS International and American Atlases, and were the sole copyright owner of those publications and their databases. But those databases contained historical and current time zone information that Astrolabe accused the maintainers of the timezone database of pilfering.

According to the lawsuit, the two men were accused of infringing 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.

Which, it seems, is exactly the message Astrolabe got when they finally answered the cluephone.

But the lawsuit, even as it ends, didn't avoid causing some damage. On Oct. 6, there was a court-ordered shutdown of the timezone database, which meant that every Linux distro and UNIX flavor (including BSD-based OS X) that tapped into this database as a reference point for timezones, which change more often around the world than you might think, was without a canonical source of information. (Windows applications and the operating system were not affected, as Microsoft keeps its own timezone database.)

The shutdown didn't last terribly long… in a week's time, the database was shifted over to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which apparently had been in negotiations to take over the database from the NIH anyway, since 2009. The Time Zone Database now resides at ICANN's Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) site.

While the time zone data was not in any serious danger after this transfer to ICANN, it's great news that Eggert and Olson are free from the burden of this lawsuit. Based on the EFF's side of the story, it seems that the Foundation played hardball with Astrolabe in order to get the suit dropped.

"EFF... promptly signed on to defend Olson and Eggert and protect this essential tool. In January, EFF advised Astrolabe that Olson and Eggert would move for sanctions if Astrolabe did not withdraw its complaint. Today's dismissal followed."

There's no telling if Astrolabe made an honest mistake, or perhaps were thinking they could gin up a nice timezone royalty scheme if they were found to be the sole owners of this timezone data. I have a strong suspicion that they never expected the sharp community, legal, and media response to their lawsuit. But that may just be my cynicism showing.

It is not clear if Olson and Eggert will be involved in overseeing the maintenance of the Timezone Database moving forward. But Eggert has definitely expressed his interest in participating in maintaining the database. In a message on the timezone mailing list this morning, Eggert wrote:

"I'm happy that the matter is resolved, and would like to express my appreciation to everyone who helped: Corynne McSherry of EFF, Adam Kessel and Olivia Nguyen of Fish & Richardson, Arthur David Olson for putting up so patiently with these legal hassles, Robert Elz for taking over coordination and doing such a fine job, and everyone who sent in data in the meantime. I hope to rejoin the throng."

I, for one, would like to take the opportunity to thank Eggert and Olson for their efforts and handling this lawsuit with skill and aplomb.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs 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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