|Volume 1: No. 12|
A recent Supreme Court decision confirmed an earlier ruling that compilations of facts are not protected by copyright law. At issue was whether the information in a telephone book could be republished by another company. The court ruled that bare facts, left to speak for themselves, are not a form of expression protected by copyright. Phone books are free for the copying. Photocopying might still be illegal (since it copies the selection, arrangement, and format of the information), but it is now less likely that scanning a tabulation or using the resulting database will be considered an infringement.
Direct-mail associations have long held that retyping an address list was a legitimate form of data capture. (Entries are parsed during typing, and the data fields in no way resemble printed addresses. Only the address information is copied, and that is clearly not copyrightable.) There are companies whose main business is the retyping of published directories. The court ruling implies that this data capture is legal -- unless the original information was distributed under license, of course. If compilations are to be protected, Congress will have to amend the copyright law or extend some other form of protection.
Data-capture companies will switch to OCR as soon as it is cost-effective. Now may be the time, if Business Week's report of 6/3/91 is correct. Infinite Images International Inc. (Vienna, VA) claims that its Parallax OCR system can read 1,000 pages per hour, ten times the speed of competing systems. The cost per page is only $.05 (vs. $.50) using a Parallax system costing $80K to $750K. The software is from Calera Recognition Systems (Santa Clara, CA), but the hardware is a custom multiprocessing design.
Free commerce in ideas has always been considered essential. The distinction between ideas and information is now at issue. It takes effort to compile information, and that effort should be rewarded -- but not if it takes public-domain information out of the public domain. An immediate result of the Supreme Court's ruling may be to discourage the sale of CD-ROM databases and hardcopy reference works. Access to compilations of facts may have to be regulated by contract, which effectively prevents retail distribution. (Even a single sale under a faulty contract might put a collection into the public domain, making it risky for companies to invest in publishing databases.)