January 12, 2012 | By Corynne McSherry

Just the Facts: Lawsuit Against TimeZone Database Deserves Sanctions

If there were ever a lawsuit that invited sanctions against the people who filed it, this one is it: a case against two database developers by a company that claims a copyright on the time of day.

Quick background: last fall, Astrolabe, an astrology software company, sued Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert, researchers who have coordinated the development of a database of time zone information for decades.  The database is an essential tool used by computers around the world to determine local time so, for example, files and email messages can organized and time-stamped accurately.  Astrolabe claimed that Olson and Eggert had infringed its copyright because the database relies, in part on information in an atlas to which Astrolabe owns the rights (the ACS International Atlas).  

We’ve seen a lot of bogus lawsuits over the years, but this one is a doozy.  Facts are not copyrightable, which means the developers were free to use the Atlas as a source. What is more, it appears that Astrolabe knew that the database contained only facts from the Atlas – its Complaint states repeatedly that the database developers copied “information” – i.e., facts. Indeed, the case would be laughable but for the dangerous consequences: Confronted by this legal threat, and lacking the resources to defend himself, Olson promptly took the database offline, to the shock and dismay of the many users and developers who relied upon it.

But Olson and Eggert soon found they had allies in the fight. EFF signed on to defend them, with assistance from Boston copyright attorneys Adam Kessel and Olivia Nguyen, of Fish & Richardson. And then we waited for Astrolabe to actually serve Olson and Eggert, which would allow litigation to commence in earnest. Perhaps realizing the absurdity of its legal position, however, Astrolabe didn’t bother to take that next step, leaving Olson and Eggert in legal limbo. 

Today, we’re taking the battle to Astrolabe, and starting the process for seeking sanctions under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Rule 11 requires litigants to conduct a reasonable inquiry into the facts and law before filing any paper with the court.  Obviously, that didn’t happen here.  Astrolabe now has 21 days to withdraw its Complaint.  If it doesn’t do so, the Rule 11 “safe harbor” expires and we’re free to ask the court for sanctions.  Once the court reviews Astrolabe’s preposterous claims, and their dangerous consequences, we expect it will agree with us and punish both the company and its attorney so they never again try to abuse the legal process.  

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