The title to this post is grossly reductionist, but it amused me. Regardless, I’m not planning on taking on astrology yet again, just the particular astrologers who are engaged in what I view to be a money-grab along the same lines as the now defunct SCO Group.*
A company called Astrolabe was founded in 1979, the same year I was born (this is probably portentious). It’s an eight-astrologer outfit headquartered in Brewster, Massachusets. In 2008, this company bought from the then-failing Astro Computing Services the ACS PC Atlas, a computerised database of latitudes and longitudes for American cities with some historical time zone data.
On September 30th, Astrolabe decided the open-source Olson time zone database (a.k.a. tz, tzdata, or tzinfo) infringed on the copyrights they owned, and filed a lawsuit against Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert (complaint as text) resulting in the database, which is relied upon by every computer running pretty well any variant of Unix including Linux and BSD for providing time-accurate historical data, being pulled and replaced with a stub with only data from 2000 onward. This includes a huge chunk of internet servers and services, and means any display of historical times pretty well anywhere on the internet is now potentially specious.
The tz database is an open-source project to compile facts about cities’ latitudes and longitudes, and historical data about time zone delineations dating as far back as when time zones were created. You’d think time zones are static things, but they change all the time for stupid local political reasons. Witness, for instance, Indiana’s time zone history where rather than changing their schedules, people lobbied to change the time zone rules. Given the sheer amount of historical data available, the hundreds of volunteers working on this project compiled the database from a large number of well-credited sources, including the ACS Atlas — the same atlas from which the ACS PC Atlas, which Astrolabe purchased, was derived. Bear in mind that ACS was very likely aware of the tz database and did not sue them, and that in fact ACS itself refers to a number of other copyrighted works as sources with no mention of whether the data obtained from those sources was copyrighted. They could very well be guilty of exactly what they accuse Olson and Eggert of doing.
As it turns out, much of the data in the ACS Atlas had inaccuracies introduced intentionally, exactly as aspidoscelis suggested in the last comment thread, in order to catch copyright violator. This is evidently a common practice amongst companies that provide compilations of what should be nothing but the facts about history, a sort of watermark where if someone repeats your specific lie, you know they got it from you originally. The tz maintainers have taken great pains to provide the most historically accurate information available, and in many cases where the ACS Atlas and another source disagreed, the other source was apparently considered canonical.
The really interesting thing, to me, about this case is just how personal it happens to be, and by sheer coincidence. Regular readers will remember that I’ve clashed in the past with a man named Curtis Manwaring over whether astrology is real. He and I obviously did not resolve this age-old dispute in this one discussion, but I made the point that regardless of whether it makes testable and demonstrable predictions about your future, the software that he created — being himself the CEO of a company that makes software that rivals Astrolabe’s — is very likely well-written, thoughtful and thorough, owing to his understanding of the mechanics behind the movements of the planets. I did not notice at the time that he refers to the Olson time zone database, but I certainly notice now. Especially given Manwaring’s account that Astrolabe was made aware of the Olson database’s existence when they investigated why Manwaring was no longer directing customers to Astrolabe to license the ACS database from them.
That’s right, they’re going after the Olson database as an almost direct result of Curtis Manwaring cutting into their profits by using their vastly more accurate, more detailed and completely public domain competitor.
And so, where under normal circumstances I would not countenance providing him a sympathetic ear, especially as regards infighting between astrologers, Manwaring is in this case most assuredly the aggrieved party of the two. And the lawsuit’s splash damage is most certainly within the scope of my interests, being an example of an attempt at cheating at copyright law in a money grab to the detriment of the computing world at large, the open-source world in the proximate, and at its basest level, an example of people behaving absolutely abhorrently to one another out of unmitigated greed. My reaction is mixed, of course, with a tinge of schadenfreude that astrology itself is going to get a very public bloody nose in the course of this fight.
The lawsuit has engendered a great deal of outrage amongst Astrolabe’s customers, evidently; not to mention the consternation of everyone with any amount of technical or legal knowledge. In fact, they have generated so much outrage that Gary Christensen, CEO of Astrolabe, wrote a response to the public trying to assure them that they just want compensation for all their hard work in buying the database. I won’t even stoop to the level of dismissing the whole complaint out of hand on the sole basis that at the end, Christensen suggests that somehow this trial is a touchstone on the topic of The Daily Parker provides a thorough fisking of this response, including this killer argument-ender:
Gary, the information expressed in the tzinfo database “is…considered copyrightable” only by Astrolabe, not, in fact, by Title 17, U.S. Code.
Think that would stop Astrolabe from trying? Well, it already hasn’t, as their lawyers have evidently not pointed it out to them yet. Or if they have, then Astrolabe has simply ignored this.
If Astrolabe doesn’t get a very sympathetic judge, as a result of the wording of the law, I strongly suspect this case will die at the first motion to dismiss. Title 17 states that the expression of ideas is copyrightable, but not the ideas themselves. In other words, once the facts are known after an investigation, how you arrived at those facts doesn’t matter, so long as it demonstrates that these facts are true. Your expression of those facts is the creative part of your endeavour in your book, and anyone copying you verbatim is guilty of plagiarism. The facts themselves, however, are absolutely not yours in any way, shape or form. Otherwise, the first person to write about a historical event would thereafter be owed royalties by anyone who ever dares write about those events.
Adding another minor wrinkle is the fact that ICANN, the organization that manages IP addresses and domain names on the internet, has announced that it’s taking over the database after Olson’s announced retirement. The press release for this fact came after the lawsuit was filed, so I strongly suspect ICANN has every intention of carrying the lawsuit through as the database’s new stewart.
Copyright laws are ludicrous enough as they stand without this reductio ad absurdum which Astrolabe, like SCO before them, is apparently trying to bring into being. I strongly wish that the defendants do not under any circumstances settle this case, because not only would doing so have devastating effects on the computer industry, it would set a horrible precedent that I don’t think copyright law needs now.
Then again, Astrolabe is made up of eight astrologers who must, I’d suspect, have some idea that their case is worth pursuing. Surely at least one of them has done up a chart of some sort to predict the case’s outcome. If not, then they’re certainly not doing their due diligence.
* The company formerly known as Caldera, who renamed themselves to The SCO Group in an effort to claim to be the spiritual successors of the once proud Unix shop The Santa Cruz Operation when they licensed UNIX from Novell. The Santa Cruz Operation itself was renamed to Tarantella then bought by Sun in 2005, and still exists today as a division of Oracle — yipes. Need a flowchart? The SCO Group decided that their freshly acquired license to manage UNIX gave them copyrights over the source code, despite Novell’s contract specifically excluding those copyrights; they went after Linux regardless, the from-scratch Unix-alike for ostensibly copying said code. Almost ten long and bloody years later, their lawsuit in all its parts is pretty much dead, and the company’s corpse now being picked over for the last of its assets by holding companies and lawyers. That lawsuit had huge implications for the open source world, including that if they succeeded in proving what they claimed, every person using the free open-source operating system would be forced to buy a license from SCO for its use at several hundred bucks a pop. It was a pure money-grab predicated on some specious interpretation of the laws surrounding copyright and the mistaken belief that Linux has any reason to copy any code to begin with. For more info, visit Groklaw’s SCO: Soup2Nuts page.