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Astrology outfit takes time-zone database down

The time-zone database, founded by Arthur Olson, operated by the US National Institute of Health and used to provide software with the most accurate list of international timezones available, has been closed down following the filing of a copyright lawsuit.

The time-zone database - or the Olson database, as it is sometimes known in honour of its creator - is used by software ranging from Linux to Java to determine the correct settings for various time-zones across the world. It provides the most accurate and readily accessible list of time-zone locales anywhere on the Internet, and is made freely available for all to use.

Sadly, that freedom is in jeopardy as a company called Astrolabe Inc. claims ownership over some of the time-zone database's entries, filing a suit in the Boston Federal Court against Olson to close the service down.

"A civil suit was filed on September 30 in federal court in Boston," Olson confirmed in a message to the project's mailing list last night. "I'm a defendant. The case involves the time zone database. The ftp server at elsie.nci.nih.gov has been shut down. The mailing list will be shut down after this message."

Astrolabe, founded in 1979, produces software, reference books, and services related to the questionable practice of astrology - the art of divining the future from a study of the stars. Despite having little basis in science, astrology is a booming business and, for some reason, Astrolabe sees the time-zone database - which, it must be said, has absolutely nothing to do with astrology in the slightest - as a threat.

Astrolabe's claim appears to stem from an entry in the time-zone database added in 2006 by project contributor Paul Eggert. "A good source for time zone historical data in the US is Thomas G. Shanks 'The American Atlas,'" Eggert wrote of his addition. "It is the source for most of the pre-1991 US entries below."

Published by ACS Publications in 1991, the rights to the work appear to have been acquired by Astrolabe relatively recently. "Pursuant to a written agreement," the company claims in its complaint docket, "Astrolabe is the copyright assignee of the copyright owner, of certain copyright-protected computer software programs and information contained therein [...] known as the 'ACS Atlas.'

"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 authorisation from the copyright holder, and without paying royalties due and payable to the copyright holder and/or its assignee, Astrolabe, in computer software format."

In its complaint, Astrolabe asks for a temporary retraining order prohibiting the time-zone database from being published; a permanent injunction against any republication of the ACS Atlas data; and "damages and other such amounts, including interest, attorney's fees and costs, for the unlawful and wrongful use of the Works."

While it's hard to argue against Astrolabe's assertion that data from the ACS Atlas was included in the time-zone database thanks to Eggert's comprehensive note, there are a few facts that could trip the company's lawsuit up. Firstly, the time-zone database is - at least nominally - a government project run by the National Institute of Health, and charges no fee for access. Secondly, a well-established doctrine of fair use makes it impossible to copyright 'facts' - such as historical changes of time-zone decreed by the government.

For now, however, it appears that software makers are going to have to look elsewhere to keep updated on the - surprisingly frequent - changes made to international time-zones.