PanLex, Copyright, and Licensing

There is now a lawsuit over whether time-zone data can be protected by copyright. This follows older litigation on telephone directories. It may affect the lexical data used in the PanLex project.

PanLex is a compilation of lexical data and a set of procedures facilitating the interrogation and modification of the data.

In other locations I have commented on the issues of intellectual property that can arise from a project such as PanLex. These other comments include “PanLex as Intellectual Property”, “Source Citation in PanLex”, and a paragraph in my report to the 1 June 2011 meeting of the Utilika Foundation board of directors, where I wrote:

Intellectual-property claims impose some limits on the expansion of PanLex. The creators of some resources assert rights that, taken literally, would prohibit a person reading a resource from later even making use of what he or she had learned from it. Other resources are in the public domain. Between these extremes, many resources have been published subject to explicit or implicit copyright and various claims and restrictions, including various copyleft-type licenses and prohibitions of commercial use. The above-mentioned metadata that we record for resources used, or to be used, for PanLex include data on intellectual-property claims and permissions. In directing the PanLex project I take such claims into account, insofar as they appear to be understandable and enforceable, but, in most cases, I believe the owners of lexical resources could not prohibit the foundation from recording in PanLex information contained in those resources. This belief is based on the understanding that what we do with a resource is to record some of the facts asserted in it, in a novel (recoded, normalized, structured, interoperable) form. (In other words, PanLex doesn’t copy source X, but instead tells the world that some user of PanLex who has consulted source X claims that source X either states or implies that word Y is a translation of word Z.) In addition, I believe that PanLex typically advances the purposes of a contributing resource’s creator by making the facts contained in the resource more accessible and usable and referring users of those facts to the original resource for more detailed information. Until now, no claimant has asked us to remove facts based on a resource from PanLex. Some (e.g., LINCOM GmbH and SIL International) have expressly approved our use in PanLex of some or all of their data. However, some possessors of resources have demanded payment for providing easily processable versions for use in PanLex, and others have refused to provide such versions at all. The inclusion of funds for legal services in the 2012 budget reflects an assumption that intellectual-property issues, as well as contractual issues more generally, will likely become more complex as the PanLex project progresses.

One of the related issues is the protection of databases as compilations. A discussion of this issue by Daniel Tysver describes the competing originality and effort criteria for making a database copyrightable. Some compilers of databases in some jurisdictions have found copyright claims unenforceable because their databases were unoriginal. Telephone directories are the classic example.

Now there is litigation on another type of arguably unoriginal database: a collection of data on time zones that much of the world has come to depend on. There is much discussion on the merits of the claim. The outcome of this lawsuit may further clarify the limits of copyright protection on data like those in PanLex.

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