Time is relative, and local time doubly so. The average Linux user may not think about time zones other than at installation time or when on the road, both occasions when one has to pick out their current geographic location on a tiny map, so that the OS can adjust the clock to the local standard. But collectively, all of those individual clock-setting actions add up to the need for a global database — one that needs updating far more frequently than many realize. The database referenced by Linux and most other Unix-like OSes came under fire in October, but has now found a more permanent home.
Unix-like OSes internally maintain the system time as "Unix time", which
is the number of seconds since midnight January 1, 1970 in Coordinated
Universal Time (UTC), but omitting any leap seconds. UTC is essentially
Greenwich Mean Time, and does not have the seasonal adjustments for "daylight saving time" or "summer time" used in many regions. Ensuring that all hosts agree on the time is of course critical to the success of many network protocols, but UTC is not convenient for most of the world's users. User-facing time (including filesystem timestamps, cron jobs, the panel clock, and most messaging or calendaring applications) is presented as the system time adjusted to the local clock, based on the current location.
Exactly what the correct adjustment is depends on several factors, though. The boundary lines between time zones are stable in most countries, but they do change periodically, particularly at the provincial or city level. Whether and when a location observes daylight saving time changes more frequently — often based on political and economic factors rather than any objective or scientific reason — and the addition of leap seconds happens only when the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) deems it necessary. On top of determining the current time, however, programs often need to look up the local time for past events.
The solution to this multi-faceted problem is the "tz database", which
records the difference between Unix time and local time for 405 distinct
regions of the globe. Every change of that delta — whether a leap
second, a daylight saving time transition, or any other adjustment —
is encoded as a rule. The 405 regions represent those contiguous zones
where a single rule has governed the offset from UTC since January 1, 1970,
although the database contains some historical records that go much further
back. For years the tz database was maintained by volunteers Arthur David
Olson and Paul Eggert, with the data hosted by Olson and Eggert's employer,
the US National Institute of Health (NIH), along with the tz public mailing list to discuss and announce changes to the data.
Linux systems usually provide the database as the tzdata package, which stores entries in /usr/share/zoneinfo/. The zones are broken down hierarchically by geographic region in human readable form, usually named for the country or largest city in the zone, whichever would be less ambiguous. The GNU libc utilities provide a set of command-line programs to work with the tz database: tzselect, zdump, and zic.
All was well until Olson posted a startling message to the tz list on October 6 (GMT), announcing that a lawsuit had been filed against him involving the tz database — and that he was therefore shutting down the FTP server and mailing list. In the days that followed, it came out that the lawsuit in question had been filed by Astrolabe, Inc, a purveyor of commercial astrology charts, books, and software, and that Eggert was also named as a defendant (although NIH was not).
The lawsuit (which is visible online) accused Olson and Eggert of copyright violation, because Olson and Eggert gathered some of the historical time zone adjustment data from a book called the ACS Atlas. The ACS Atlas was a reference book of historical facts intended to be useful for astrologers creating or working with "birth charts". Its original publisher went bankrupt and Astrolabe purchased the publication rights to the atlas in 2008. The book does not appear to be in print anymore, but the company does sell a Windows-based application called ACS PC Atlas including the same information.
The lawsuit accuses Olson and Eggert of "unlawful
reproduction" of data from the ACS Atlas and of having
"wrongfully and unlawfully asserted that the information and/or date
[sic] taken from the Works is in the 'public domain.'" It seeks a
restraining order and a permanent injunction prohibiting both from
"unlawfully publishing any and/or some part of the Works" as
well as monetary damages. The lawsuit came as a shock to the tz database community, as well as the Unix community in general, in part because the suit claims that including facts from the book in the database deprives the publisher of income — when the references to the ACS Atlas in the comments actually encourage its use.
The fact zone
But the far bigger problem with the suit is that Astrolabe asserts that
the facts in the book are protected by copyright. This would seem
to be a matter of settled law in the United States, where the courts have
repeatedly ruled that facts or information are not copyrightable material.
The Copyright Office even has a FAQ entry and a
circular [PDF] explaining the distinction, which lists under "What is Not Protected by Copyright"
Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)
... although, naturally, actual court decisions are what matter.
The most prominent ruling is Feist v. Rural (1991), in which the US Supreme Court decided that information was non-copyrightable, even when considerable time and effort went into collecting and compiling it in the published work. Rural Telephone Service Company, a telephone cooperative, had sued the phone book publisher Feist for copying 4,000 entries directly out of Rural's own phone book. The court ruled that originality was required for a work to be protected by copyright, but that even in the case of collections of information or facts, only the "creative aspects" of the collection were subject to copyright protection — not the underlying facts themselves.
The 2003 Assessment Technologies v. Wiredata ruling (mentioned in the
"Implications" section of the Feist v. Rural Wikipedia page) extended this idea further, saying that is it "fair use" to reverse-engineer a copyrighted work to extract the underlying factual information from it. The 1987 Worth v. Selchow & Righter Company case would also seem to apply; in that case, Worth — the author of a trivia encyclopedia — sued the creators of the Trivial Pursuit board game for bulk-copying his questions and answers, including many typos. The court ruled in Trivial Pursuit's favor, that facts are not subject to copyright protection.
The Astrolabe lawsuit does not claim that the tz database reproduces any of the ACS Atlas verbatim (which it might be argued was copyrightable as "creative expression"), but the underlying data. Tz database fan and blogger Dave Braverman posted an analysis of the lawsuit on October 6, which resulted in a lengthy press-release-like comment from Astrolabe CEO Gary Christen. Christen claimed that the contents of the ACS Atlas were more than "mere compilations of fact" because the authors had used "ingenuity" researching records and reconciling inconsistencies based on their "best judgments and expertise." Braverman replied with a follow-up post dissecting Christen's comments and predicting swift failure in court.
In another wrinkle, developer Curtis Manwaring wrote to the tz list claiming that the lawsuit was in fact just one part of a larger attack aimed at him. Manwaring is the developer of a rival astrology software product, one that uses the tz database in lieu of ACS Atlas, and claimed that the Astrolabe lawsuit is intended to scare him into licensing ACS Atlas data for his own product.
News from the legal front has been quiet for the past week; several members of the community offered to contribute to a legal defense fund for Olson and Eggert, but none has yet been announced. In the meantime, however, the tz database itself quickly found a new home.
ICANN has TZ
On October 14, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
[PDF] that it was taking over the hosting and maintenance of the tz database. ICANN cited a request to take over administration of the database from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and quotes ICANN Chief Operating Officer Akram Atallah as saying "The Time Zone Database provides an essential service on the Internet and keeping it operational falls within ICANN's mission of maintaining a stable and dependable Internet." It does not mention the lawsuit, although ZDNet Australia quoted ICANN's Kim Davies as saying "We are aware of the lawsuit [...] We'll deal with any legal matters as they arise."
Moving the home for the tz database has been in the works for a while,
for reasons completely unrelated to the recent lawsuit. Olson announced the
need for a new home in August 2009 because he would "be eligible to
start drawing a pension in mid-2012". Since that time, discussions
have gone on about where to house the database, and ICANN was certainly in
the mix, so the move there doesn't come as a complete surprise.
ICANN is best known for managing the top-level domains of the domain
name system and IP address allocations, both through its subsidiary entity
the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), though it also oversees
several protocol number assignments, character encodings, and URI
standards. Although it works closely with the IETF, the two organizations
are not legally linked.
The tz mailing list came back online — from an ICANN server — a week before, on October 7, and numerous list members posted links to mirrors of the original server's FTP contents. Long-time volunteer Robert Elz appears to be the de-facto manager of the database for the time being, but so far it still appears to waiting for an "official" home server from ICANN. Elz told the list that he has been in contact with ICANN, and that the organization has no intention of interfering with the way the project is run. However, Elz also told the list that he is not interested in taking on management of the project long-term, as he — like Olson — is approaching retirement age.
Based on the available facts, the Astrolabe lawsuit is baffling at first glance. Unless it was a desperation play by a company rapidly going out of business, it would not seem to be worth the effort. Granted, reading the tea leaves of the legal system is tricky at the best of times, but there are multiple court cases directly refuting the plaintiff's central claims — including a US Supreme Court ruling. What hope could there be to collect damages?
That is, unless Manwaring's story is the key piece of the puzzle. If the lawsuit is actually an attempt to damage a competitor by taking out his alternative source for historical time zone data, then the suit makes more sense — particularly the fact that it names the two individuals as defendants, but not NIH. Individual defendants would be more likely to simply take down the database (which they did), in theory denying Manwaring access to it. The suit references a "takedown notice" sent to Olson and Eggert on-or-around May 12 of 2011, well before the lawsuit was filed (on September 30). Manwaring's product, Terran Atlas, released version 2.0 on May 16, and the product page goes into considerable detail about the merits of the tz database over ACS Atlas.
But if shutting down the tz database (rather than collecting damages) was Astrolabe's goal, then it would appear to have backfired. The information is still available (both through FTP mirrors and through updated tzdata packages), and ICANN has far more weight to throw around than most other defendants. Pursuing a similar case against it would have easily-foreseeable results. Just as importantly, if the current lawsuit continues, the community seems poised to come to Olson and Eggert's assistance.
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