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Oct 15 2011

Unpacking the Astrology Vs Computers lawsuit

The title to this post is grossly reductionist, but it amused me. Regardless, I’m not planning on taking on astrology yet again, just the particular astrologers who are engaged in what I view to be a money-grab along the same lines as the now defunct SCO Group.*

No, no, this is the GOOD kind of astrolabe.

A company called Astrolabe was founded in 1979, the same year I was born (this is probably portentious). It’s an eight-astrologer outfit headquartered in Brewster, Massachusets. In 2008, this company bought from the then-failing Astro Computing Services the ACS PC Atlas, a computerised database of latitudes and longitudes for American cities with some historical time zone data.

On September 30th, Astrolabe decided the open-source Olson time zone database (a.k.a. tz, tzdata, or tzinfo) infringed on the copyrights they owned, and filed a lawsuit against Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert (complaint as text) resulting in the database, which is relied upon by every computer running pretty well any variant of Unix including Linux and BSD for providing time-accurate historical data, being pulled and replaced with a stub with only data from 2000 onward. This includes a huge chunk of internet servers and services, and means any display of historical times pretty well anywhere on the internet is now potentially specious.

The tz database is an open-source project to compile facts about cities’ latitudes and longitudes, and historical data about time zone delineations dating as far back as when time zones were created. You’d think time zones are static things, but they change all the time for stupid local political reasons. Witness, for instance, Indiana’s time zone history where rather than changing their schedules, people lobbied to change the time zone rules. Given the sheer amount of historical data available, the hundreds of volunteers working on this project compiled the database from a large number of well-credited sources, including the ACS Atlas — the same atlas from which the ACS PC Atlas, which Astrolabe purchased, was derived. Bear in mind that ACS was very likely aware of the tz database and did not sue them, and that in fact ACS itself refers to a number of other copyrighted works as sources with no mention of whether the data obtained from those sources was copyrighted. They could very well be guilty of exactly what they accuse Olson and Eggert of doing.

As it turns out, much of the data in the ACS Atlas had inaccuracies introduced intentionally, exactly as aspidoscelis suggested in the last comment thread, in order to catch copyright violator. This is evidently a common practice amongst companies that provide compilations of what should be nothing but the facts about history, a sort of watermark where if someone repeats your specific lie, you know they got it from you originally. The tz maintainers have taken great pains to provide the most historically accurate information available, and in many cases where the ACS Atlas and another source disagreed, the other source was apparently considered canonical.

The really interesting thing, to me, about this case is just how personal it happens to be, and by sheer coincidence. Regular readers will remember that I’ve clashed in the past with a man named Curtis Manwaring over whether astrology is real. He and I obviously did not resolve this age-old dispute in this one discussion, but I made the point that regardless of whether it makes testable and demonstrable predictions about your future, the software that he created — being himself the CEO of a company that makes software that rivals Astrolabe’s — is very likely well-written, thoughtful and thorough, owing to his understanding of the mechanics behind the movements of the planets. I did not notice at the time that he refers to the Olson time zone database, but I certainly notice now. Especially given Manwaring’s account that Astrolabe was made aware of the Olson database’s existence when they investigated why Manwaring was no longer directing customers to Astrolabe to license the ACS database from them.

That’s right, they’re going after the Olson database as an almost direct result of Curtis Manwaring cutting into their profits by using their vastly more accurate, more detailed and completely public domain competitor.

And so, where under normal circumstances I would not countenance providing him a sympathetic ear, especially as regards infighting between astrologers, Manwaring is in this case most assuredly the aggrieved party of the two. And the lawsuit’s splash damage is most certainly within the scope of my interests, being an example of an attempt at cheating at copyright law in a money grab to the detriment of the computing world at large, the open-source world in the proximate, and at its basest level, an example of people behaving absolutely abhorrently to one another out of unmitigated greed. My reaction is mixed, of course, with a tinge of schadenfreude that astrology itself is going to get a very public bloody nose in the course of this fight.

The lawsuit has engendered a great deal of outrage amongst Astrolabe’s customers, evidently; not to mention the consternation of everyone with any amount of technical or legal knowledge. In fact, they have generated so much outrage that Gary Christensen, CEO of Astrolabe, wrote a response to the public trying to assure them that they just want compensation for all their hard work in buying the database. I won’t even stoop to the level of dismissing the whole complaint out of hand on the sole basis that at the end, Christensen suggests that somehow this trial is a touchstone on the topic of The Daily Parker provides a thorough fisking of this response, including this killer argument-ender:

Gary, the information expressed in the tzinfo database “is…considered copyrightable” only by Astrolabe, not, in fact, by Title 17, U.S. Code.

Think that would stop Astrolabe from trying? Well, it already hasn’t, as their lawyers have evidently not pointed it out to them yet. Or if they have, then Astrolabe has simply ignored this.

If Astrolabe doesn’t get a very sympathetic judge, as a result of the wording of the law, I strongly suspect this case will die at the first motion to dismiss. Title 17 states that the expression of ideas is copyrightable, but not the ideas themselves. In other words, once the facts are known after an investigation, how you arrived at those facts doesn’t matter, so long as it demonstrates that these facts are true. Your expression of those facts is the creative part of your endeavour in your book, and anyone copying you verbatim is guilty of plagiarism. The facts themselves, however, are absolutely not yours in any way, shape or form. Otherwise, the first person to write about a historical event would thereafter be owed royalties by anyone who ever dares write about those events.

Adding another minor wrinkle is the fact that ICANN, the organization that manages IP addresses and domain names on the internet, has announced that it’s taking over the database after Olson’s announced retirement. The press release for this fact came after the lawsuit was filed, so I strongly suspect ICANN has every intention of carrying the lawsuit through as the database’s new stewart.

Copyright laws are ludicrous enough as they stand without this reductio ad absurdum which Astrolabe, like SCO before them, is apparently trying to bring into being. I strongly wish that the defendants do not under any circumstances settle this case, because not only would doing so have devastating effects on the computer industry, it would set a horrible precedent that I don’t think copyright law needs now.

Then again, Astrolabe is made up of eight astrologers who must, I’d suspect, have some idea that their case is worth pursuing. Surely at least one of them has done up a chart of some sort to predict the case’s outcome. If not, then they’re certainly not doing their due diligence.



* The company formerly known as Caldera, who renamed themselves to The SCO Group in an effort to claim to be the spiritual successors of the once proud Unix shop The Santa Cruz Operation when they licensed UNIX from Novell. The Santa Cruz Operation itself was renamed to Tarantella then bought by Sun in 2005, and still exists today as a division of Oracle — yipes. Need a flowchart? The SCO Group decided that their freshly acquired license to manage UNIX gave them copyrights over the source code, despite Novell’s contract specifically excluding those copyrights; they went after Linux regardless, the from-scratch Unix-alike for ostensibly copying said code. Almost ten long and bloody years later, their lawsuit in all its parts is pretty much dead, and the company’s corpse now being picked over for the last of its assets by holding companies and lawyers. That lawsuit had huge implications for the open source world, including that if they succeeded in proving what they claimed, every person using the free open-source operating system would be forced to buy a license from SCO for its use at several hundred bucks a pop. It was a pure money-grab predicated on some specious interpretation of the laws surrounding copyright and the mistaken belief that Linux has any reason to copy any code to begin with. For more info, visit Groklaw’s SCO: Soup2Nuts page.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    mck9

    Minor historical correction:

    The Santa Cruz Operation never claimed ownership of the UNIX copyrights. What they did was to sell their UNIX business to Caldera, publisher of a well-regarded Linux distro. The remaining rump of Santa Cruz renamed itself Tarantella and was eventually absorbed by Sun.

    Finding itself unable to make a profit, Caldera brought in new management and renamed itself The SCO Group in a largely successful attempt to convince the public that it was the Santa Cruz Operation. Then The SCO Group claimed ownership of the copyrights (despite the explicit exclusion of copyrights in the original contract) and threatened to sue Linux users for infringement.

    I won’t belabor the rest of the long and sordid story. Suffice it to say that the Santa Cruz Operation was not the villain.

  2. 2
    'Tis Himself

    Then again, Astrolabe is made up of eight astrologers who must, I’d suspect, have some idea that their case is worth pursuing. Surely at least one of them has done up a chart of some sort to predict the case’s outcome. If not, then they’re certainly not doing their due diligence.

    Obviously Astrolabe is going to win. The stars say so. If the stars said otherwise then they wouldn’t have pursued the case. Certainly the case’s horoscope should be part of the plaintiff’s exhibits to the court.

    Your Honor, the case is a Libra. The chart shows the Libran Sun is exactly conjoined to the Ascendant. The Moon lies just 2 degrees into the first house and both personal planets are joined in conjunction by Pluto and Mercury making a powerful stellium. As a triple Libran, the case will be worthy of fairness and justice which needs to be served.

  3. 3
    Greg Laden

    Now … if they had only copyrighted the idea of time zones …

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    mck9 @1: excellent primer. It’s been quite some time since I was a daily Groklaw reader, when the SCO case was just spinning up, so I’d forgotten all those lovely twisted little name rebranding shell-games they’d played. I’ll update the post now.

  5. 5
    Curtis Manwaring

    That’s right, they’re going after the Olson database as an almost direct result of Curtis Manwaring cutting into their profits by using their vastly more accurate, more detailed and completely public domain competitor.

    Actually my customers still have a choice between the two as one can switch between the Terran Atlas and the ACS Atlas and I still have a webpage that tells users how to get the Stand Alone version (of course my links have rel=”nofollow” because of what Astrolabe is doing now). Astrolabe however completely removed all links to my site. I try to put my customers wishes first.

    There really isn’t a vast amount of money in astrology except for a handful of companies like astrology.com and probably Esoteric Technologies (makers of Solar Fire). Most astrologers have to work a 2nd job to make ends meet and I barely get by with just my software company.

  6. 6
    Ed Kohout

    Jason The Bald,

    Yes, those craft little devils at Astrolabe probably did do up some charts “of some sort”. Do you think they used their own software, or did they do it all by hand?

    The fallacies in your post and the second comment are gigantic. Someone thinks that Astrolabe, being run by astrologers, should know for sure exactly what the outcome of their actions will be because they are astrologers. I know this is sarcasm, but sarcasm only works when it makes fun of the truth. NO astrologer can say for sure what the outcome will be, nor would one claim that, unless he or she was insane, or unless of course they know every single move the defendants will make in advance for this whole saga.

    I guess Curtis didn’t get the memo that all astrologers are frauds and thus living high on the hog off of others’ gullibility and loose pockets?

    The judge who signed off on the injunction is also an idiot, putting many industries at risk for the sake of a few lousy astrologers? He must be insane too.

  7. 7
    Curtis Manwaring

    Title 17 states that the expression of ideas is copyrightable, but not the ideas themselves. In other words, once the facts are known after an investigation, how you arrived at those facts doesn’t matter, so long as it demonstrates that these facts are true.

    Astrolabe insists that many of their facts are time zone “interpretations” because they had to guess (well they didn’t use the word “guess” exactly – some fancy terminology to gloss over that reality to make it look more educated). Therefore they are not “facts” and the actual times of transitions themselves are copyrightable. I don’t think that is the case though from a legal perspective because even if it is a fiction it is still an idea which cannot be copyrighted. Only the form of those ideas can be copyrighted.

  8. 8
    Dan J

    Simply outstanding.

    Jason The Bald

    Wrong again, Crumpo; I’m the bald guy. Jason still has plenty of hair.

    The fallacies in your post and the second comment are gigantic. Someone thinks that Astrolabe, being run by astrologers, should know for sure exactly what the outcome of their actions will be because they are astrologers. I know this is sarcasm, but sarcasm only works when it makes fun of the truth. NO astrologer can say for sure what the outcome will be, nor would one claim that, unless he or she was insane, or unless of course they know every single move the defendants will make in advance for this whole saga.

    So, you don’t appreciate sarcasm or hyperbole. You must be an absolute joy to be around.

    The judge who signed off on the injunction is also an idiot, putting many industries at risk for the sake of a few lousy astrologers? He must be insane too.

    It seems the thing you do best is construct strawmen. You do it so often, too!

    Look, Crumpo; You’ve already admitted that your bullshit isn’t testable, and that it’s faith-based. Why don’t you go play with your clients for a while and rape them for a few more well-deserved dollars. At least they feel good about paying you for unlicensed psychotherapy.

  9. 9
    Jason Thibeault

    Now Dan, I said I’d prefer this thread not be about astrology itself. Ed can bluster about my sarcastic dig at astrology all he wants, but if either of you want to discuss his religious zealotry in astrology, better to do it here instead, where he’s made all sorts more ridiculous claims after failing to stick his flounce.

  10. 10
    Curtis Manwaring

    IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) which is based in the USA has just uploaded the Olson Time Zone database. They are apparently not worried about the nuisance suit brought by Astrolabe, Inc.

  11. 11
    Curtis Manwaring

    BTW, you might want to fix the misprint on Gary’s last name which is Christen, not Christensen.

  12. 12
    sk43999

    Does anyone know what Astrolabe actually bought in 2008? Specifically, did it acquire the copyrights in the books “International Atlas” or “American Atlas”, or in the software “ACS Atlas”?

    The complaint has this phrase: “Astrolabe is the copyright assignee of the copyright owner …” which to my reading is gobbledy-gook. “Assign” means “transfer” — if Astrolabe was assigned the copyrights, then it now owns them, and the “copyright owner” from whom it received them is … well, no longer the owner.

    Later, there is this phrase: “… copyright holder and/or its assignee, Astrolabe …” which begs the question – if there still exists a copyright holder, what was assigned to Astrolabe?

    Title 17 is very specific. In order to sue for infringement, you must be the copyright owner of the work that you allege is being infringed (or more properly, the owner of an exclusive right) and the work must be registered with the Copyright office. The only work that I have found registered (and the only one listed in Docket #2) is the 1985 version of International Atlas, and the Author is listed as ACS Publications, not Astrolabe.

    My uneducated and uninformed guess is that Astrolabe knows it’s standing is dubious and using expansive yet meaningless statements to cover up that fact.

  13. 13
    Curtis Manwaring

    I think you might have something there. When I was at their office in Cape Cod, they told me that they were managing the ACS Atlas code base for Maria Kay Simms who bought it at a bankruptcy auction. It wasn’t clear to me that they owned it, just that they had some arrangement with Maria.

  14. 14
    sk43999

    Very interesting. How about ACS Publicatons and the books? Did Maria K. Simms buy those as well? Were they bought by whoever operates astrocom.com? (Starcrafts LLC?).

    Sorry for the pesky questions – you many not know. The details are likely buried in a vault in some Bankruptcy Court, but I’m not yet motivated to spend the time and $ to track them down.

  15. 15
    Curtis Manwaring

    I was under the impression that Maria bought the remnants of Astro Communications Service at a bankruptcy sale and that she “gave” the code to Gary to work on. My memory is a bit murky here but my impression is that Astrolabe only had the code because there was no one with programming skill at the newly renamed Astro Computing Service (which was actually the original name back in the 70′s). I don’t know what the arrangement was exactly between Maria and Astrolabe because I was only in the office on 2 separate days in early Oct for a total of about 2-3 hours at most before I decided that working there would be a bad idea.

  16. 16
    sk43999

    Bingo. A web search on Maria Kay Simms turns up multiple bio- and autobiographical pages. She sold ACS in 1998 to “Great Wisdom”. In 2004 she founded Starcrafts LLC. In 2008 she repurchased the “ACS assets”(apparently at bankruptcy) and folded them into Starcrafts.

    Funny things can happen to copyrights in a bankruptcy sale (see ITOFCA Incorporated v. MegaTrans) and we don’t know the details of the agreement between Starcrafts and Astrolabe, but I’ll bet dollars to pesos that Starcrafts now owns all the relevant copyrights, and that it is Maria Kay Simms and Starcrafts who have standing to file an infringement suit (if they so chose), not Astrolabe.

  17. 17
    Curtis Manwaring

    New development in the case Astrolabe vs Olson:

    https://www.eff.org/cases/astrolabe-v-olson

  18. 18
    coats 10 10 tire changer

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