NWS turns a cold shoulder on AccuWeather copyright
- By Michael Cheek
- Aug 11, 1997
A National Weather Service complaint has compelled AccuWeather Inc. to stop
copyrighting NWS meteorologists' forecasts that the company uploaded to its World Wide Web
Personal AccuWeather subscriptions, available on the Web at http://personal.accuweather.com, distribute
weather forecasts based on NWS data. Until Aug. 6, the site's Nowcast had verbatim
short-term forecasts from local NWS offices along with the words "Copyright 1997
AccuWeather Inc., Redistribution Prohibited."
"It's illegal to put a copyright on government documents," said Allan Eustis,
chief of NWS' Office of Industrial Meteorology. "We are in favor of AccuWeather
disseminating our weather forecasts, but with attribution and without a copyright."
AccuWeather's senior vice president, Michael Steinberg, said the verbatim use was a
"placeholder" until AccuWeather forecasts could be inserted. The verbatim NWS
forecasts were on the site for about four weeks.
AccuWeather of State College, Pa., is "not claiming ownership of the [NWS]
data--that would be absurd," Steinberg said.
"It's entirely possible that the copyright should not be there. We just do not
want people to take data from our Web site and redistribute it. We pay a lot of money for
that information," he added.
Steinberg said NWS officials encourage the distribution and redistribution of their
forecasts for public safety reasons.
Eustis said he had spoken with AccuWeather officials, who promised to remove the
"We're trying to be nice guys," he said on Aug. 5. "We're going to give
them 48 hours to take care of it. If they don't, we'll raise this to the next level and
write a letter."
Steinberg said the weather data and graphics--though originally from NWS--have
value-added information and can therefore be copyrighted.
"The Nowcast product is one of hundreds on the site," Steinberg said.
"That was the only one taken verbatim off the National Weather Service system."
Lawyers told GCN that NWS forecasts cannot be copyrighted under the U.S. Code. But
other portions of the Web site might be copyright-protected.
"Works that are developed or written by government employees are not
copyrightable," said J.T. Westermeier, a lawyer with Fenwick & West LLP in
AccuWeather's presentation or organization of NWS data on the Web site could be
protected but not the data itself, said Roberta Bren, a lawyer with Oblon, Spivak,
McClelland, Maier & Newstadt, P.C., an Arlington, Va., firm.
"The question is whether independent work and a little bit of originality are
involved," Bren said. "The raw data or facts generally cannot be protected. An
idea, like it's going to rain tomorrow, cannot be protected.
"But when certain information is selected--wind speed or rainfall--and a
conclusion is reached and presented day after day in a specific format, it may be
protectable," she said.
When AccuWeather and other companies create imagery from raw NWS satellite and Doppler
radar data, that also might be protected, Bren said, but it's a bit murky "until
challenged in a court."
The use of the verbatim data came to a GCN editor's attention after AccuWeather
personalized a version of the Web page for this newspaper. AccuWeather has been setting up
personal Web pages for review by publications nationwide.
Originally priced at $4.95 per month, the personalized service is now free, but
AccuWeather says it may begin charging for it.
Weather forecasts on the Web also are available from the Weather Channel at http://www.weather.com, CNN at http://cnn.com,
ABC News at http://abcnews.com and the National Weather
Service itself at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/er/lwx/zip.htm.
Many of the free forecasts can be personalized for a city or region.
When NWS meteorologists in the Sterling, Va., field office discovered the word-for-word
use, they began preceding their forecasts with the words, "The National Weather
Service is forecasting ... "
The service provides weather information to government agencies. "We do depend on
companies like AccuWeather to disseminate our forecasts," Eustis said.