Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Interesting legal issue of the day
So, I'm not an expert on copyright law, but I have read enough to have heard of Feist v. Rural Telephone (though I don't think I would be able to remember the name offhand). To make a long story short, a white pages publisher used information from a rival company's directory; the other company sued for copyright infringement, but the Court ruled that the information in the white pages, being factual, was not entitled to copyright protection, and the presentation, being merely alphabetical, was not sufficiently original to warrant protection either.

Now, it appears possible that these actions might be made illegal. I'm actually of a very mixed opinion about this. I suppose the sticking point is that after a company has put all this work in to create a database of information, it doesn't seem fair to me (for lack of a better term) for another company to be able to take it and make money from it. It's the last point which is key, at least in my own personal ethical system. (It's also why, of the two bills mentioned in the article, I would vastly prefer the spirit of the Bliley version; I obviously benefit from having directory information available online for free.)

I learned of this initially when reading about baseball-reference.com. b-r is simply the best baseball reference site there is, and I frequently use it and am very glad to have it as a free resource. (I believe it's also the only website I've outright donated money to -- this was well before their sponsorship system, and though there was an offer to use old donations towards sponsorship, I didn't really want to bother.) b-r gets a large (though declining, these days) percentage of its information from Sean Lahman's baseball database, which is also free. But what I didn't know is that, apparently, much of the original information in the Lahman database was extracted from a CD-ROM version of Total Baseball, which is not a free product. And, oddly, though I know that this process was (and is, for now) perfectly legal, it still makes me feel a little uneasy. I know it doesn't make sense.

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