The Dissemination War

Article excerpt

The Dissemination War

Where is the line between the federal government's mandate to disseminate information to the public and its equally important obligation to avoid entering into unfair competition with private sector vendors? Currently, the middle turf is being fiercely fought over as agency after agency automates its internal information.

A noncontroversial example of a recent automation project illustrates why the private sector is nervous as it watches agencies convert cumbersome magnetic tapes into online retrieval capabililties and/or optical storage. The National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) recently replaced about 20 magnetic tapes with a single CD-ROM disc. Because distribution costs have dropped and because users no longer need an expensive mainframe--just a PC and a CD-Rom reader--the user community has increased considerably.

Linda Helgerson, editor, Cd Data Reports, states that nine percent of all CD-ROM information offerings are sold by the government. What's to prevent that percentage from leaping up and up, turning the federal government into an electronic-publishing, industry-swallowing shark? Jack Simpson, president, Mead Data Central, verbalized industry concern here recently at the 20th Annual Convention of the Information Industry Association. According to Simpson, the government could turn into a monopoly because it controls the source of information and can establish whatever price it wishes, even subsidizing the cost of distribution.

Two official decisions are expected soon, both of which are overdue, and, when they are forthcoming, will send important signals to government agencies facing decisions on how to automate data. The first is a decision from yet another Judge Green--this one Joyce Hens Green of the Washington, D.C. Federal District Court on a suit and countersuit, the major one brought by the International Computaprint Corporation (ICC) against the Department of Commerce as a Freedom of Information Act appeal.

The cases involve The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which back in the early 80s, sought a non-budget line item approach to verifying and automating its trademark records. A number of companies, with Thompson and Thompson now the dominant player in their merged entity, accepted the PTO's request. Thompson and Thompson proceeded to verify the trademark data from its own records, which go back 60 years, and to convert that data to magnetic tape. Thompson and Thompson gave back the material in an enhanced form to the Trademark Office and marketed the online trademark information products. International Computaprint Corporation sued because it claimed, under the Freedom of Information Act, that the magnetic tapes should be made available to the public. Thompson and Thompson replied that the tapes are proprietary because of added-value data as well as retrieval capabilities. Furthermore, they have an exclusive agreement for use of "backfiles" (those filed before 1980) through 1996. Only the paper records, Thompson and Thompson argues, are non-proprietary; otherwise, how would they be assured of compensation for all their efforts? All Thompson and Thompson wants at this point is exclusive commercial use to the "backfiles" until April of 1990, six years earlier than the agreed upon exclusivity date.

The is virtually agreement across the board--from government to industry watchers to attorneys--that the PTO/Thompson and Thompson situation is a mess. "The major issues are at stake for the entire information industry," says Joe Petrillo, attorney for ICC, "and Judge Green's decision will have a major impact; it is a very important case." The first issue is whether or not an agency can satisfy its obligation to disseminate information by insisting on hard copy when magnetic media is available. Closely related is the second issue: whether or not an agency can make a deal with one private vendor and thereby tie up its database, according to Petrillo. …