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09 October 2011, 20:01

Copyright claim against time zone database

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Handless clock icon The time zone reference database used by all versions of Unix and Linux is no longer available. The Register reported that the FTP server at the US National Institutes of Health has been taken offline. This is as a result of a copyright action instituted against Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert, who for several years have maintained what is known as the Olson database and the servers on which it is hosted.

The freely available tz database contains historical information on local time at selected global locations (eg 'Europe/Berlin'). It is used by all versions of Unix and Linux and by many web sites and Java applications. Time zone data is normally stored locally and updated via system updates. Linux stores this data in the /usr/share/zoneinfo directory.

Time zones are modified surprisingly often. Java developer Stephen Colebourne estimates that there are up to 100 changes per year. Until now, Olson has been releasing new versions of the tz database on a monthly basis. Robert Elz has now made a backup of the database available on a temporary basis.

The lawsuit has been launched by Astrolabe, a producer of astrology software based in Boston, MA. Astrolabe sells a software package called ACS Atlas, consisting of two parts: the ACS International Atlas and the ACS American Atlas. Its software can be used to determine the historical time at any location for the purpose of casting horoscopes.

According to the complaint, the Olson database illegally uses copyrighted material from the ACS Atlas owned by Astrolabe. A comment in the time zone database does indeed mention the book The American Atlas from ACS Publications as a reliable source of time zone information for the USA prior to 1991. It will now be up to the courts to rule on who owns the copyright and whether time zone information can be copyrighted in the first place.

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