Supreme Court limits copyrighting


April 08, 1991|By Neill A. Borowski XTC | Neill A. Borowski XTC,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- About 25 number crunchers are employed at Wefa Group to dive into the flood of government statistics that the economic forecasting firm must massage for its clients.

The company gets the data -- much of it publicly available in raw form -- and runs it through their computers and statistical tests, checking for accuracy and making sure the numbers make sense.

Those numbers are blended with other data and then sold to businesses, government agencies and other clients. Some of the firm's products include forecasts, but many include compilations public statistics.

"There's a lot of value-added associated with the historical data

that we compile," says William A. Mundell, president of the Bala-Cynwyd, Pa., firm.

Mr. Mundell is stressing "value-added" because a Supreme Court decision in late March has raised questions about what information can be protected through copyrights.

In an economy that increasingly uses information as a raw material -- to the tune of $20 billion a year -- the copyright laws have protected the industry that gathers and sells that information.

But the March court decision could be the beginning of many court decisions on whether companies publishing lists of facts -- from business directories to market research -- are protected under the copyright laws.

The court ruled that a publisher, Feist Publications Inc., didn't violate copyright laws by reprinting in a telephone directory listings of names and phone numbers that appeared in the white-pages directory of Rural Telephone Service Co. Inc. of Lenora, Kan. Rural Telephone refused to sell the information to Feist for its competing directory, so Feist copied it without permission. Rural sued Feist.

There is nothing creative or original in the "garden variety," alphabetical white-pages directory, the court said.

The ruling is making many companies that publish information, either on paper or in computer databases, wonder how it will affect their products.

The court's decision seems to mean that competitors can copy the white pages produced by a telephone company and resell them. But what about other lists, say directories of businesses or of real estate transactions?

"I think it may leave some database providers breathing a little harder because they have to look at their databases to see what levels of creativity and expression they brought to that database," said Robert S. Schlossberg, a copyright lawyer in the Washington office of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

This latest case probably will be the first in a long line in the rapidly growing information industry.

"You might look at this as a first-generation case that clearly establishes that most, if not all, databases have copyright protection," said Steven J. Metalitz, vice president and counsel of the Information Industry Association.

"The second generation is going to be, 'Exactly how strong is that protection?' " he said.

Mr. Metalitz's group believes the information business could be as large as $20 billion a year, counting computer databases as well as traditional books of lists or other data.

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