NEWS: Database Bill Worries Scientists

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Science  05 Jun 1998:
Vol. 280, Issue 5369, pp. 1499
DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5369.1499b

A hotly contested bill that would grant sweeping new protections to private databases passed the House last month after drawing protest from academic and scientific groups, which claim the measure could impede research. Although Senate action is considered unlikely this year, opponents are continuing to lobby hard against the bill.

H.R. 2652, the Collections of Information Anti-Piracy Act, would give compilations of facts and figures a form of protection analogous to what copyright law provides to creative works. Such protections have long been sought by the $28 billion database industry, which says that information compiled at great expense is otherwise left open to freeloaders and piracy. The issue last came up (and died) 2 years ago during international treaty talks (Science, 25 October 1996, p. 494).

Arrayed against H.R. 2652 are electronic freedom, library, and scientific organizations, which argue that greater protections could block public and scientific access to published data—long enjoyed under “fair use” doctrines. Lawmakers included an exemption for researchers and educators whose analyses don't “harm the actual or potential market” of a database. But American University law professor Peter Jaszi, a member of the Digital Future Coalition, says the bill “leaves it entirely to the proprietor of the information how the market is defined.” Because of the murky wording, says Mark Frankel of AAAS (Science's publisher), scientists may “be reluctant to pursue” research that relies on private databases—from geological to genomic. “They may not be able to afford it monetarily or be able to abide by the agreements that database providers want to impose on them,” Frankel says.

No Senate champion for the bill has emerged, and both sides say its outlook is dim for this year. “But I would hope at least to get a hearing in the Senate” before year's end, says Dan Duncan of the Information Industry Association. That, he hopes, would force critics to stop rejecting “the entire concept” and instead offer “good, solid suggestions for how to protect databases.”

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