Astrologers pick a fight with open-source software and history itself

Via a pingback ostensibly made by Astrology-X-Files (and maybe even Curtis Manwaring himself, no less!), this news about Astrolabe at Tech Dirt, where they’ve just filed suit against the maintainers of the public-domain Olson time zone database that is used in just about every open-source time zone related project imaginable:

Astrolabe apparently bought the rights to the database from The American Atlas, which is cited as a source in the [Olson] timezone database. But… there’s a problem: you can’t copyright facts. And it’s difficult to see how this information is anything but factual. We have the full legal filing embedded below, but the best analysis comes from The Daily Parker’s Dave Braverman who breaks down the legal issues as follows:

  1. Is data about when time zone rules changed throughout history protected under copyright?
  2. If so, who owns it?
  3. If someone owns it, is the Olson database a derivative work under copyright law?
  4. If the Olson database does, in fact, derive from the work in question, is it a fair use?
  5. Just how stupid are these astrologists, anyway?

Of course, I’m pretty sure the answer to question (1) is no, which would answer all the rest of the questions, except for the final one.

I can answer question 5.

This raises another, more interesting question than whether astrologers are jackasses: if you maintain a history book (e.g. a “reference work”), and someone refers to that history book while making a work predicated on facts about history, can the owners of the history book claim copyright violation just because you pointed them back to that specific book? Should you have, instead, simply referred to the historical events without citing where you got them, since those facts about history are not actually copyrighted to anyone? Isn’t there copyright law specifically pertaining to reference works?

Either way, I’m looking forward to these astrologers getting ground into dust. The Groklaw commentariat have already picked up on it, and I can’t wait to see what PJ herself has to say once the answer to the complaint hits the intertubes.

Astrologers pick a fight with open-source software and history itself

24 thoughts on “Astrologers pick a fight with open-source software and history itself

  1. 1

    As they will no doubt have already been aware (as it was already written in their stars), Astrolabe’s attorneys are going to be laughed out of court.

  2. 2

    Facts of course are uncopyrightable, but there are areas where it gets tricky. You may have heard of the Westlaw situation — they publish court opinions, which are in the public domain, but they claim copyright on the page numbers, to prevent unlicensed citations. I wish I were making that up.

  3. 4

    Regarding Answer #1, it’s hazy for me.

    I recall that Wikipedia at one point some years ago had to remove all of their “radio market” groupings, because they too-closely resembled those used by a company (I think it was Arbitron). I don’t know what the result of that dispute was, but Wikipedia does seem to group radio stations into markets like they used to. I’m not sure if this is deemed a donation by the business, or something Wikipedia licensed from them, or if the business simply lost in court.

    In any case, the business was successful in at least disrupting Wikipedia’s usefulness, regarding radio, for a period of time.

  4. 5

    I don’t know how it works elsewhere, but in the UK I’m reasonably sure that whilst a single fact cannot be copyrighted a collection of facts can, as can a database. So in this case, whilst a single fact of the change of a time-zone cannot be copyrighted, a specific collection of them in a specific format most certainly can.

    In this specific case (IANAL etc), if the facts are all lifted from the same source – the copyrighted American Atlas – and re-ordered in to a database, I could see that there could be an issue. At least in theory.

  5. 6

    It appears American Atlas is not the only source used for the time zone historical changes. And regardless, AA is itself a database of facts organized in atlas form. Unless the actual wording (e.g. any “creative” part of that database) is lifted, you can’t copyright facts. If you used AA to trace a state’s current borders, they couldn’t sue you, for the reason that this tracing is identical to every other display of that state’s borders. The borders are the borders, regardless of what map you took it from. Unless AA is allowed to alter those borders to make it a creative work (which would make it a useless atlas), they have no “rights” over the facts themselves.

  6. 7

    Re. post #6:

    “The borders are the borders, regardless of what map you took it from. Unless AA is allowed to alter those borders to make it a creative work (which would make it a useless atlas), they have no “rights” over the facts themselves.”

    Interestingly, map-makers often do precisely that. They include erroneous details in order to allow them to identify and sue makers of derivative works. So long as these details are minor and obscure, they are unlikely to mislead anyone. For instance, the DeLorme atlas for New Mexico includes a very small drawing of an alien head on the east end of the Capitan Mountains that I assume is there for this reason. The map is made very, very slightly less useful in the process, but now if another map-maker produces a map of New Mexico with the little alien head, DeLorme can say–“Aha, that is not just factual information, it’s our intellectual property!”

    Additionally, boundaries may be presented with different degrees of accuracy at different scales. The specific manner in which boundaries are simplified at course scales could, I suppose (but don’t know), be an additional source of copyrightable information beyond the objective facts.

  7. 9

    Response from Astrolabe about lawsuit:

    Immediately after filing a copyright violation lawsuit with the U.S District Court for Massachusetts against Mr. Arthur David Olson or Mr. Paul R. Eggert, Astrolabe Inc., received dozens of highly emotional emails, telephone calls, Facebook postings, tweets and inquiries. There have also been attempts to disable its website.

    Astrolabe has now done a careful reading of these communications, as well as of the various industry publications that broke this story on October 7.

    A typical news story appeared in under the Headline “Chaos feared after Unix time-zone database is nuked.” It continued, “The internet’s authoritative source for time-zone data has been shut down after the volunteer programmer who maintained it was sued for copyright infringement by a maker of astrology software.” It went on to say that the Time Zone and Daylight Saving Time Database, also known as the Olson database, is “the official reference Unix machines use to set clocks to local time” and that it “is used by countless websites and applications to reconcile time differences across the world.”

    We can well understand the panic caused by such stories. However we believe that the highly emotional reactions that we received were based on an incomplete understanding of the facts. These facts are as follows:

    1. Astrolabe’s lawsuit is in no way intended to interfere with compilation of current time-zone information maintained by Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, or any other persons. On the contrary, Astrolabe recognizes that compiling current time-change information is crucial for keeping computers properly up to date, as well as for many other useful purposes in today’s world. Astrolabe applauds the efforts of Olson, Eggert and the many other volunteers who maintain the database of current time changes.

    2. The aim of Astrolabe’s suit is only to enforce copyright protection for materials regarding historical time data prior to 2000. This does not affect current time-setting on computers, and it has little or no effect on the Unix computing world.

    Late in 2010 Astrolabe was disturbed to learn of the compilation effort of Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, which had been going on for a number of years. When asked to what extent they had relied upon the historical data published by ACS Publications, Mssrs. Olson and Eggert gave Astrolabe misleading answers. Further research by Astrolabe revealed that, contrary to the representations of Mssrs. Olson and Eggert, their database contained not just incidental or limited reproduction of the copyrighted material, but wholesale reproduction of the same, without lawful permission, contract or license.

    3. The fact is that the historical time zone data compiled by ACS is protected by registered copyrights, first on its publication in book form as the American Atlas and the International Atlas, and later in electronic form as the ACS PC Atlas. The question of whether the material is “copyrightable”: has already been decided by the U.S. Copyright Office in the affirmative.

    4. Why is the material considered copyrightable? Many hold the mistaken belief that all databases are mere compilations of fact, and are therefore not subject to copyright. However, compiling the ACS database went far beyond gathering official government data. In 20th-century America, particularly in the Midwest, time standards were a chaotic patchwork of not only state and local ordinances, but even of different time observances in the same jurisdiction. (For example, in some cases a hospital would record birth times using Standard Time while the surrounding city was on Daylight Time.)

    Ferreting out the time standard that was actually being used to record a birth time involved a great deal of ingenuity. Besides researching “official” records, the publisher and authors consulted a myriad of other records using proprietary methods and, on some occasions, hiring local investigators. Where inconsistencies existed, the publisher and authors used their best judgments and expertise as to the actual time observed in specific locations, based on this historical research. In much the same way as Zagat Survey and Michelin Guide not only set forth the names, addresses and features of particular restaurants, but also various ratings, the Atlases comprise original historical time and location research, including judgments and expertise in determining actual historical time observed in any given location, fully meeting the definition of an “original work” as required under the Copyright Laws of the United States.

    5. Why did the ACS compilers bother to undertake this effort? Prior to the widespread use of computers, few except astrologers had any interest in putting together detailed information about the time standards that were actually in use in different geographical areas at various times in history. As every astrologer knows, this information is vital. Without knowing the relation of the local time in use to time at the Greenwich meridian (the standard that is used for astronomical observations), it is impossible to calculate an accurate astrological chart.

    Whatever others think of astrology, at the very least the world owes a debt to astrologers for creating this massive record of the time standards used in the past. This is not the place to make a detailed defense of astrology, but in answer to those whose outrage is increased by the fact that astrologers are the plaintiffs, we can only say that these detractors are uninformed. Uncritical recipients of the opinions of those who are higher in status than they are, they have obviously never experienced the power of astrology for themselves. Why astrology works is still a mystery, but as the prevailing paradigm morphs from 19th-century mechanism into one that has to embrace all the new things we are finding out about the universe, perhaps we will soon have a plausible explanation. Anyway, to those who know that astrology is bunkum and its practitioners are money-seeking parasites on society, all we can say is try to be a bit humbler and accept that the universe is far more mysterious than you imagine.

    6. Why is Astrolabe suing to defend this copyright? Following the death of Neil Michelsen, the founder of Astro Computing Services, Astrolabe purchased the rights to the ACS PC Atlas, the electronic expression of the time-change database compiled by Michelsen, Thomas Shanks and Mark and Rique Pottenger. The data was also augmented by permission with the work of Doris Chase Doane and Francoise and Michel Gauquelin. In addition, the entire astrological community gave their time and energy to help correct this ongoing work, freely knowing that it was for commercial use.

    With this purchase, Astrolabe inherited the obligation to pay royalties on the Atlas to Michelsen’s widow and to the other principal compilers, who are now at retirement-age. Astrolabe is defending this hard-earned intellectual property in order to continue paying royalties and recoup its own investment. Contrary to the accusations that it is trolling for dollars, it is not filing this suit in pursuit of vast amounts of cash. In the astrology world, there are no vast amounts of cash. The suit was filed in order to make Astrolabe’s concerns known to Mssrs. Olson and Eggert having not received a satisfactory reply to earlier phone calls and letters. Astrolabe has no wish to cripple the database on which Unix, Linux, Java and other computing depends.


    In filing this suit, Astrolabe has touched the hot buttons on a number of highly emotional issues. One issue is the long-held right of people to receive money for their labors vs. the newer values of open sourcing, wiki and the other forms of the free information exchange that have made the internet so great. Another is the clash of paradigms between a mechanistic one unfriendly to astrology and a newer (and older) one that recognizes that the universe is far more mysterious than we thought. It is painful to be caught in these cross-currents, but we hope that through this suit we will not only gain a just decision, but also promote greater clarity on these important issues.

  8. 11

    The reason I ask, is this lacks much of the polish, legal terms of art, header and footer. If this has not been vetted through the lawyer, if this is merely the draft you submitted to the lawyer, posting it on the various corners of the internets is not a great idea.

  9. 13

    Whoa, this is more convoluted than I realized. Astrolabe really tried to hire you away from your own company? This is crazy. I had no idea this fight is going on. And, despite our prior scuffles, I honestly think you’re in the right. For this fight, you have me as an ally, because the splash damage is monumentally damaging to the world of computing.

    I honestly can’t wait to get a hold of the legal documents. If what you posted is just a public-facing document, it can be presented as evidence by Olson that they bought the atlas explicitly to attempt to sue Olson et al.

  10. 14

    This whole thing is so crazy I can’t begin to explain this all because it started 16 years ago, so I’ll skip ahead. Once these companies realized that I was right about the market, several companies (not just Astrolabe) tried to hire me and I soon realized that it was not for my abilities, but to try to steal my work. Cochrane’s Sirius program has the hellenistic time lord routines because he tried to hire me and I stupidly believed he was a decent person. That was fall 2005. I didn’t make the same mistake again though, but others tried to hire me. and Astrolabe both. Astrolabe on 3 occasions. At UAC in Denver which was the 2nd time, Gary warned me that times were turning tough and that I’d better consider his 2nd offer more seriously. What I didn’t know at the time was that ACS was about to go bankrupt and I think Gary knew that. In July 2008, ACS went bankrupt and I was concerned that I wouldn’t have an atlas anymore. When I found out who obtained it, I was even more concerned because now they had leverage (work for us and give us your code or no ACS Atlas for Delphic Oracle…). Of course they never stated it that way, but that was what was going on in the back of my mind. I eventually went to Cape Cod in Oct 2008 to feel out the situation and the meeting was a no go as far as working there, but I managed to get a verbal agreement that I could send my customers over there.

    Time passed and my customers started complaining. I at first thought that it was just due to their backlog but it went on for more than a year and eventually a programmer in Australia who was also a customer told me that he thought Astrolabe was trying to make me look bad. It took more than a week to set him up with the stand alone verion of the ACS Atlas. He was so pissed that he formatted a database of latitudes and longitudes associated with cities and asked me to add it to my software. That got me back on the problem of time zones again which I had initially started researching immediately after ACS went bankrupt, then found the Olson tz database and a short while later had the first version of the Terran Atlas. I did the release on Nov 19, 2010 and on Nov 24th got this email from Gary Christen (which has inaccuracies in it but keep in mind this was also sent to his lawyers):


    Hi Curt,

    Kirk Kahn just sent this link to me and it is very disturbing.

    You, of all people know that we have invested serious $ into the ACS Atlas and have given you and your customers very good pricing for its purchase. We have also been doing serious investment into re-writing this copyrighted code.

    We have an obligation to the Michelsen-Simms Trust and to ourselves to legally protect this data base. While another entity may have illegally published some of this material into the public domain, that does make subsidiary use of pirated material legal for any party.

    We will be investigating the Olsen work, as it has just come to our attention. There is no instance where any portion of the Atlas has been given permission to be brought into the public domain. Such use is theft, as we understand it.

    The research into the past time zone changes and time usage by Neil Michelsen, Thomas Shanks, the Pottenger brothers and countless hired researchers was financially paid for by ACS at great expense and went on for many years. Many of the sources used, we know, are no longer extent and cannot be re-created by any means. The bankruptcy of ACS and the years leading up to it have been a low point in the ACS Atlas research and development. Since assuming ownership 2 years ago, we have been
    involved in legal proceedings concerning the Atlas and have spent the time since this spring doing major upgrades to the entire code base. While we are correcting some errors in overseas tables, these areas are being greatly expanded.

    It is very easy to take what seems to be public information and cobble together something new. One only has to copy and do the details. However, the historical information underlying the time tables is still owned by Astrolabe and the Michelsen-Simms Trust and re-creating it without the aid of copying Thomas Shanks’ life work would be very hard indeed. And he, as well as the Pottenger brothers still get royalties for all uses of the work, so this is stealing from them as well.

    One can self justify for any activity and twist morals at will. You are quite aware that this is an ethical violation as well as a legal one as you made no attempt to consult with us as to rights and legalities. What looks like a loophole is, in turn, a sleazy rat hole that reveals poorly thought out intentions and damaging actions.

    Astrolabe wants you to withdraw this product and publish a disclaimer. We will be legally following up on this and the sources. The fact that the authors you have utilized publish their sources and cite ACS will not sit well and is not an excuse for usage. This area is not about academic material where simple citing of other people’s work allows reference. The providence of ownership of this material is well documented.

    Thank you for your attention,
    Gary Christen, President, Astrolabe, Inc.


    Having studied copyright law for nearly a year due to piracy issues I was having about 10 years ago and also having a friend who was a copyright lawyer in the gym I trained in, this seemed like an attempt to scare rather than a serious threat, so I just kind of brushed it off knowing that facts were not copyrightable, but only the way they are displayed is unless it is “simple and obvious” such as alphabetical or numerical order in which case that is not copyrightable either. Being very familiar with the Olson database format knowing it wasn’t anything like the American Atlas in printed form, it seemed like an impossible lawsuit. I also emailed Olson and Eggert on several occasions about various issues and asked permission to use their database even though I knew from their statements that they had placed it in the public domain.

    So now Astrolabe is trying to say that their Atlas is “creative writing” (section 4 above reads like a BS commercial) to get past the stipulation of facts not being copyrightable by saying that these are time zone “interpretations” and not facts. Of course, never mind that they just throttled the credibility of their database (apparently they are not worried about a database of fantasy time changes). If it’s not a fact, then its fiction. Anyway I laid out the argument fairly well on the Skyscript forum, but I’m not a lawyer, just an advanced layman on the subject.

    Astrolabe also says that they have no problem with the current tz data, only the historical data (which proves that they don’t want to engage IBM, Google, etc in trolling for dollars). They just want what I have.

    This case is absurd in the extreme and I hope Arthur and Paul do not settle out of court. We need to give them whatever help they need to defeat this in court.

  11. 16

    I absolutely agree that this court case must be settled with finality.

    I am worried that this will become another SCO — a company that bought what they thought was copyrights for something, that they perceived was copied by open-source, and it took over five years to shamble through the courts like a zombie. In the meantime, said company was in a death spiral, becoming a litigation company rather than a producer.

    In a way, this means you’re very likely to lose your biggest competitor, Curtis. In another, it means the selfsame death spiral will be used to parasitize the company over the course of years, and a great deal of damage will be done to the computer industry as fallout.

    One of the comments at Stephen Cloebourne’s blog hits it on the head: copyright protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. There’s no creative aspect to the time zone database.

    And despite Gary Christen’s protestations, there are, indeed, real side-effects that the computer industry will have to deal with if you have anything to do with historical record-keeping. All pre-2000 dates on all computers that rely on tzdata (and that’s the majority of internet servers, by the way!) are now in question without that database, and all distros that I know of have already pulled the tzdata and replaced it with stub data.

  12. 17

    Reproducing one of your comments, Curtis:

    Curtis Manwaring said…

    Earler versions of the ACS Atlas did cite their sources, but later copies apparently expunged this data. The 1978 edition shows the following acknowledgements:

    Major contributions have been made by the following published materials and journals: Doris Chase Doane, “Time Changes in the USA”; Curran and Taylor, “World Daylight Savings Time”; documents published by the Interstate Commerce Commission; National Railway Publication Co.; “The Official Guide of the Railways … of the United States…”; “The Mercury Hour”; “AFA Bulletin”; and “Astro Psychological Problems”.

    It goes on to state… “Individuals making major contributions include: Mark Pottenger, Mary Brandes, Don Borkowski, Eugene Seger, Wayne Lee Holt, Mary Frances Wood and Arthur Blackwell. Significant material was also provided by Dorothy Pierce, John Adkins, Lillian Celic, Edith Custer, Gary Duncan, Lynne Burmyn, Liz Anderson, and Susan Aiu.

    I’d post the actual proof, but I might get sued.

    This is important though because if it turns out that ACS actually copied other peoples work from other compiled sources…

    Thanks to Dr. Alois Treindl for letting me know about this.
    10 October 2011 03:17

  13. 18

    I would hope that IBM, Google, Sun Microsystems, Apple, etc gets involved for the defense and settles this issue with their army of lawyers. David and Paul don’t deserve this and while Astrolabe says they applaud their efforts on the current tz info, they have no problem with dragging them and the rest of the computing world through the mud over the tz history in order to have a defacto monopoly in the field of astrology through sales of Solar Fire with the built in ACS Atlas.

  14. 22

    This just demonstrates why the very idea of intellectual property is absurd – it comes down to trying to own and control abstracted information itself, of which ‘facts’ are one variety, as opposed to a given rendering of information (the specific MPEG2 encoding of the original video frames and audio track of season 1 of The Venture Bros. pressed to DVD sitting on my desk right now, for example). The fact that people might not be able to make a living making art or inventing or doing research is a problem with market capitalism, not with information being free (in both senses). Copyright attempts to address a symptom of a broken economic system, and therefore fails to achieve its ends, as the underlying problem remains.

  15. 23

    To bring up the aforementioned “alien Head” on the Delorme New Mexico map. Has anyone actually been out there to look at that spot? I have read this thread and I understand the idea behind the head and why it isn’t in the legend of the state map, but alas I am curious and there is not much to do in this fine state of ours. While I am there I can check out Trinity Site and the state parks!

  16. 24

    Seems to me that an alien head could simply be photoshopped right out of the map before re-using it. Thus removing the “original” creative work….

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