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Database-protection bill advances in Congress

A bill that would help protect databases from wholesale copying won approval from a congressional committee on Wednesday.
/ Source: Reuters

An effort to protect school guides, house listings and other databases from wholesale copying won the approval of a congressional committee on Wednesday, despite objections of lawmakers who said it is not necessary.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 16 to 7 to provide a legal umbrella for publishers of factual information, such as courtroom decisions and professional directories, similar to the copyright laws that protect music, novels and other creative works.

The controversial measure must also clear the Energy and Commerce Committee before it can come up for a vote on the House floor, where its fate is uncertain. No similar bill has yet been introduced in the Senate.

Database providers such as Reed Elsevier and Thomson Corp. have pushed for such protection for years, saying they have few legal tools to protect themselves from rivals who copy and resell information that they have painstakingly assembled.

Business, consumer and library groups and many high-tech companies have blocked passage in previous sessions of Congress, saying database publishers can protect themselves through existing laws and terms-of-service agreements.

Lawmakers drafted a more narrowly focused version last year, and the committee narrowed it further to exempt universities and Internet providers from liability.

"What we have here is a watered-down, compromise version," said North Carolina Republican Rep. Howard Coble, a bill sponsor.

Opponents said the bill would still harm public discourse by making factual information less accessible, and runs afoul of a Supreme Court decision that says facts belong in the public domain.

"Even if we pass this bill the court is going to strike it down and we will not have solved the problem," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat.