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Civil Suit Filed, Involving the Time Zone Database 433

An anonymous reader writes "Arthur David Olson, the creator and maintainer of the timezone database used in about every unix/linux platform in use on the planet, just sent the message to the timezone mailing list: 'A civil suit was filed on September 30 in federal court in Boston; I'm a defendant; the case involves the time zone database. The ftp server at has been shut down. The mailing list will be shut down after this message. Electronic mail can be sent to me at I hope there will be better news shortly. --ado' A Google search does not yet reveal anything about this; does someone know what is going on?"
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Civil Suit Filed, Involving the Time Zone Database

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  • by realxmp ( 518717 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @01:50PM (#37628806)
    Just was reading [] apparently it looks like Arthur Olson was planning to retire. IETF was planning to take on the custody of the role and host the list? I wonder if this is related?
  • Complaint Text (Score:5, Informative)

    by apilosov ( 1810 ) <> on Thursday October 06, 2011 @01:53PM (#37628898) Homepage

    I've pulled the complaint from PACER and uploaded it to docstoc: []

  • by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @01:54PM (#37628930) Journal

    This blog article [] has an analysis of the action. It appears, essentially, that Astrolabe publishes an altas that the tz database is based on (in terms of reproducing time zone information from the atlas in the db):

    Defendant Olson's unauthorized reproduction of the Works have been published at [], where the references to historic international time zone data is replete with references to the fact that the source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas.

    I thought the issue of whether you could copyright facts (e.g., phone numbers, timezone values for specific locations) was already settled law.

  • PACER (Score:5, Informative)

    by pirodude ( 54707 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @01:54PM (#37628932)

    1. Plaintiff, Astrolabe, Inc. [hereinafter “Astrolabe”], is a for-profit
    Massachusetts corporation with a principal place of business at 350 Underpass
    Road, P.O. Box 1750, Brewster, Barnstable County, Commonwealth of
    Massachusetts 02631, and is engaged in the business of publication, marketing
    and sale, including computer software publications and/or programs
    pertaining to the field of astrology.
    2. Defendant, Arthur David Olson [hereinafter “Olson”], is an individual with a
    last and usual residence at 7406 Hancock Avenue, #2, Takoma Park,
    Maryland 20912, and with a usual an ordinary place of business as a computer
    specialist at the Laboratory of Experimental Carcinogenesis, Building 37,
    Room 4146A, National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health, 37
    Convent Drive, MSC 4262, Bethesda, Maryland 20892.
    3. Defendant, Paul R. Eggert [hereinafter “Eggert”], is an individual with a last
    and usual residence in the State of California, who is engaged in the business
    of computer services and programming, and employed as a lecturer with the
    University of California, Los Angeles, Computer Science Department, with a
    principal business address of: UCLA Computer Science, Box 951596,
    4532JBH, Los Angeles, Calfiornia 90095-1596.
    Case 1:11-cv-11725-GAO Document 1 Filed 09/30/11 Page 1 of 5
    4. Pursuant to a written agreement, Astrolabe is the copyright assignee of the
    copyright owner, of certain copyright-protected computer software programs
    and information contained therein, pursuant to the Copyright Protection Act,
    17 U.S.C. Section 101, et seq., known as the “ACS Atlas,” consisting of both
    the “ACS International Atlas,” and the “ACS American Atlas,” in the form of
    computer software program(s) and/or data bases, and in the form of electronic
    output and future electronic media from said programs [hereinafter “the Works”].
    5. These atlases set forth interpretations of historical time zone information
    pertaining to innumerable locations throughout the world, based upon the
    compilation of historical research and documentation regarding applicable
    time zones officially and/or in actuality in effect, given the actual latitude and
    longitudes of specific locations throughout the world.
    6. Upon information and belief, defendants Olson and Eggert have unlawfully
    reproduced the Works, in violation of the Copyright Protection Act, without
    proper permission and/or authorization from the copyright holder, and without
    paying royalties due and payable to the copyright holder and/or its assignee,
    Astrolabe, in computer software format.
    7. Plaintiff, Astrolabe publishes, markets and sells its ACS Atlas programs (the
    Works) for commercial profit purposes to, inter alia, those interested and/or
    engaged in the business and field of astrology seeking to determine the
    historical time at any given time in any particular location, world-wide.
    8. In connection with its rights to reproduce the Works, plaintiff Astrolabe is
    contractually obligated to pay royalties to the owner/assignor of the copyright
    and the authors of the same.
    9. Defendant Olson’s unauthorized reproduction of the Works have been
    published at [], where the references to
    historic international time zone data is replete with references to the fact that
    the source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas.
    10. In connection with his unlawful publication of some and/or any portion of the
    Works, defendant Olson has wrongly and unlawfully asserted that this
    information and/or data is “in the public domain,” in violation of the
    protections afforded by the federal copyright laws.
    11. Defendant Eggert’s unauthorized repro

  • by Phoenix Rising ( 28955 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @01:57PM (#37628986) Homepage

    Here's a decent and quick summary, clipped in part from the complaint. Short version: Astrolabe, Inc. has purchased the copyright to the American Atlas and is claiming that because Olson and others used the atlas as a source for some timezone information, the entire database infringes.,guid,c5f28bae-4b9c-41ea-b7b7-8891ad63c938.aspx []

    Of course, the timezone information itself is public - the atlas only collected it.

  • Re:Astrology (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 06, 2011 @02:06PM (#37629180)

    That would be the one - Same address as listed below in complaint.

  • by aevan ( 903814 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @02:27PM (#37629504)
    Apparently [].
  • by Ghostworks ( 991012 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @02:28PM (#37629526)

    As usual, IANAL, but...

    The trouble is, you now CAN copyright databases. It's been made explicit in EU law, but I think it's still defensible under US law. The idea is that the organization of facts is copyrightable (take for example, encyclopedias, atlases, etc.). The trouble is, copyright transcends specific media, while a database separated from a specific medium is a mundane collection of facts. The argument here is that Olson's TZ database just cribbed Thomas Shanks' atlas.

    This seems like it's troll action. They're not going to be able to get anything of value out of Olson, so they probably want to get a judgment against him as leverage for payments from companies that uses the timezone database through Linux. On the other hand, those companies would be insane not to just bankroll Olson's defense. It's seems like a pretty weak case in a gray area, so it could go either way. Since Olson has announced his desire to retire from the project, I guess this was a "now or never" opportunity for the trolls.

    As a side note, the infowars portion of the suit has begun. The reference to Shanks on the "Tz database" page was added as close to the top as could be managed by user JulDes on Sept. 3, which seems to be the day the account was created. As of May 2006, "Thomas Shanks" on Wikipedia redirected to Irish footballer Tommy Shanks. As of One month ago, it now instead has information on the otherwise unknown author of the American Atlas, 1978, ACS publications. The editing account, "TZ Master" seems to have been created expressly for the purpose 5 minutes earlier.

  • by PatentMagus ( 1083289 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @02:58PM (#37630040)
    Whoever related this to the SCO litigation is closer than he knows. The timezone database has been widely hosted and replicated - most notably on *.gov servers. A finding of copyright infringement could allow the plaintiff to collect against all sorts of entities - including the US government. I also suspect that statutory damages are possible. So, winning this case would be a massive massive payday.

    The defenses include that the data itself is factual and that the atlas data itself has been used openly and notoriously for so many years that the copyright is extinguished by laches. Something that can add strength to the defense is that the form (as in formatting, data storage, etc.) of the factual data is different.

    Regardless of all that, this case could get pushed pretty far through the appeals process. Those US government pockets are deep are about as deep as they get. Someone also mentioned IBM's bug squashing abilities. Has the database been hosted off a * location?

    For those wanting to check out the case law, the place to start is:
    Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991)

    In a more open source centric mode, has anyone thrown down a web site for gathering timezone info?
  • by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @03:52PM (#37630906) Homepage Journal

    America is the US by shorthand.

    North America and South America are used when referring to the continents, and "The Americas" is used when referring to them as a whole.

    Eat shit and deal with it.

  • ACS database (Score:3, Informative)

    by PaperGeek ( 1045780 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @04:51PM (#37631874) Homepage
    About 10 years ago I created a startup that used the ACS database. ACS used to stand for Astro Computing Services and they used to publish ephemera as well as several publications which allowed you to lookup timezone information. This is a fairly extensive set of data if you want to translate local time at a particular time in the past (say, someone's time of birth as recorded on a birth certificate) into UTC time. Time zones have changed, time change rules have changed (for example, double summer time was observed in England during WWII) and one of the books I used to have from ACS (published back in the 1980s) claimed that this information had been compiled from a wide variety of historical records. One possible scenario is that Olson had written permission to use some parts of the data but a troll has purchased the copyright and is trying to profit from it and pretending they don't know nothin' about no permission. That would be a crying shame since putting the data in such a compressed form that is used on countless *nix servers and devices was an immense task - the original database was an ugly conglomeration of flat files that needed quite a bit of spanking to get it into a useable format, and was certainly not within orders of magnitude of the compactness of the Olson database. Anyway, on the surface, if this is the same ACS database there is quite a lot of data involved, much of it covering historical edge conditions, but I haven't checked to see how many of the edge conditions prior to 1970 are reproduced in the Olson database. From what little I know of the way these things work, the plaintiff would have to show that there was willful infringement without permission and that some damages occurred, but there would not be any value in the ACS data unless you needed to know with great reliability whether daylight savings time was in effect, say, in some rural county in Indiana at 4:06 am on 21 October 1947 (and for that matter, what was the timezone).
  • by Descartess ( 2478562 ) on Thursday October 06, 2011 @06:17PM (#37632920)

    This is an outrageous attack against a case of perfectly legal use of published data.

    Where tzdata has used information from ACS atlas, it quotes it source (Thomas Shanks, former employee of ACS Inc, San Diego, who appears as author on the printed books American Atlas and International Atlas).
    In each case, the information published by Shanks was critically reviewed by the tzdata community. In many cases, Shanks' information was rejected, in many cases it was accepted over other contradicting (or confirming) information.

    Shanks did not create the information in his published books, he collected it from other published sources, though the books fail to name the source of the information in nearly all case.

    Relevant sources of Shanks, especially for International atlas, were
    - Gabriel, Traite de l'heure dans le Monde, Paris
    - Henri Le Corre, Regimes Horaires pour l'Eruope et l'Afrique
    - Doris Chase Doane, Time changes in the world
    - Doris Chase Doane, Time changes in the USA
    - Curran and Taylor, World daylight saving time, Chicago 1935
    many other publications appearing in the astrology domain.

    The two books by Shanks consist to 95% of lists of towns with longitude and latitude, their assignment to counties or provinces, and their assignment to timezone
    history tables. tzdata uses NOTHING of this information, as tzdata does not contain assignments of towns to zones, except the single town in each zone used for naming it.

    Shanks has about 2000 of different timezone history tables, they make up about 5% of the books volume.

    tzdata has only about 400 different timezone history tables, because tzdata is historically not complete. It is only complete for the post 1970 era (where ACS is incomplete, and where ACS newer editions have used a lot of data taken from tzdata. Legitmately without quoting the source, as tzdata is public domain.)

    Tzdata quotes Shanks for about 100 of these tables (I gues, I did not count), as one of the sources of historical timezone information.
    In each case, the data given of Shanks were critically reviewed.

    A perfectly legitimate use of published data.

    The information about which time public clocks showed at a particular date in a particular country or region is by its very nature public information. It is not subject to copyright. Shanks does not own it, he has only collected it, and he is as often false as other collectors are sometimes false.

    The use tzdata makes of such information is fully legitimate. It did by no means copy data from these books. It critically reviewed some of the information found there, and used a small amount (maybe 1% of the book content) in a completely different context and different representation.

    The attempt by Astrolabe to claim private rights on public domain data must be forcefully resisted by the tzdata community.
    I would hope that large users of tzdata, like Apple (in IOS and MAC OS-X), Redhat and other Linux distributors etc will contribute to a defense fund for Olson, and/or contribute legal assistance.

    Plus: Astrolabe has very little money

Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. -- Neil Armstrong