It may come as a surprise to some people but there is a group of people who maintain that HIV, the etiologic cause for AIDS, does not even exist. You read that right; there is a group that includes Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos, Valendar Turner, John Papadimitriou, David Causer and Stefan Lanka, commonly referred to as the "Perth Group" because they are based in Perth, Australia, who, incredible as it may seem, claim that there is no proof for the existence of HIV. They have a web site called Virusmyth.com, (http://www.virusmyth.com) where their arguments, such as they are, are laid out. While their views have long ago been refuted by a mountain of evidence, they cling to their belief that HIV doesn't exist, and so it cannot be the cause of the AIDS pandemic that is now ravaging the African subcontinent. They have even issued a $25,000 challenge to the research community to prove the existence of the virus (http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/award.htm).
We see these kinds of devious challenges from time to time; there is for example, Kent Hovind's $250,000 reward for "empirical evidence of evolution" (http://www.drdino.com/). Challenges such as this are not intrinsically daft, they can be quite effective when the arguments are sound, the challenge is simple and the conditions are not otherwise strawmen. A good example of this type is James Randi's well constructed challenge for evidence of the paranormal (http://www.randi.org/research/challenge/index.html ). On the face of it, the Virusmyth.com challenge seems scientifically rigorous yet simple; the hallmarks of a good challenge. Unfortunately for the folks at Perth, it merely seems so.
One thing is clear from the response to the researcher who's claimed the prize; the folks over at Virusmyth.com have no intention of allowing the contest to be won. The researcher who has claimed the prize, by the way, is Peter Duesberg, an iconoclastic Berkeley retrovirologist who claims that although HIV does indeed exist, it is not the cause of AIDS. The Perth Group has taken steps to ensure that their challenge will remain unanswered. They do this partly by setting unreasonable rules, partly by constructing strawmen, and partly by moving the goalposts.
The challenge itself, is carefully crafted to ensure that no-one is likely to take them up. This ensures that they can continue to claim that as the challenge has not been satisfied, their arguments must be devastating to the research and medical establishment. The reason for this is simply that the Perth Group insists that the proof for the existence of HIV can arise from their method alone. No other evidence is acceptable. Basically they have seven steps (below) that they claim are required to prove that HIV is real. Imagine a reward for proof that the earth is round. But then requiring for proof that claimants to the prize must travel to the moon and take a picture. No other methods, from any other source at any other time would be acceptable.
While flying to the moon and taking pictures of the earth would indeed prove that we live on a round ball of mud, it is expensive, dangerous and wholly unnecessary for that purpose. We could, for example, ask someone to walk several hundred miles, look down a well and measure the angle of the sun at noon and compare it to a well near us. Or we could sit by a bay on a calm clear day and watch boats sail away. Or we could plot our path through the heavens. Or we could observe the shadow of the earth ON the moon. Or we could circumnavigate the earth in sailing ships and plot our latitude. Or we could ascend in a balloon, or in an airplane, or launch a satellite. All of these methods have been used, some since ancient times, to demonstrate that the earth is round.
We do not need to isolate HIV by the techniques cited by the Perth Group to prove its existence. To insist upon their method to establish the reality of HIV is to unequivocally demonstrate one's credulity before charlatans.
A strawman argument is an argument that uses a contrived and false premise that is used expressly to deconstruct another argument. The people at Virusmyth.com claim that since HIV researchers have not used guidelines established in 1973 at the Institute Pasteur to purify HIV, then the very existence of the virus is questionable. Unfortunately for the Perth Group, no such guidelines were established at Pasteur or anywhere else.
Despite what it says at their site, the whole challenge is based upon the biggest hairiest strawman I've ever seen. The challenge first appeared in a magazine called Continuum. The folks at Virusmyth publish Continuum, and the challenge is reprinted at the Virusmyth.com web site (http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/award.htm).
"The rules for isolation of a retrovirus were thoroughly discussed at the Pasteur Institute, Paris, in 1973, and are the logical minimum requirements for establishing the independent existence of HIV. They are:
Edward King (http://www.users.dircon.co.uk/~eking/index.htm) published a rebuttal to the Virusmyth challenge in AIDS Treatment Update (http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/news/ekisolation.htm). From that essay;
"Contrary to the implication by Continuum, the Pasteur Institute did not draw up such guidelines in 1973. When we asked Continuum to provide the reference for a published account of the Pasteur Institute's guidelines, they could only supply two papers which did describe research into retroviruses, but did not themselves meet the seven steps Continuum was now requesting for HIV. Ironically, the authors of the papers cited by Continuum were also the first to describe the isolation of HIV in 1983."
Indeed, those two papers cited by the Perth Group are:
Spectra is an obscure French-Canadian journal and is blastedly hard to get hold of. The journal is available in the U.S. only at large university libraries with comprehensive journal collections. Still, the papers ARE available. They DO NOT use guidelines from the Pasteur Institute. Further, take a gander at that first author's name on the first paper cited. She was a member of the group who first isolated HIV in 1983. Her paper is cited below.
Virusmyth responds to the Dr. King's point about the absurdity of basing a challenge to purify the virus on non-existent "guidelines" by agreeing that the papers they site for evidence for these guidelines do not, in fact, follow them (http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/data/epreplyek.htm). One is left to wonder, then, why they are surprised that few people take them seriously.
Even if these guidelines had been promulgated as the Perth Group asserts, they would today be considered obsolete and unduly restrictive. HIV happens to be somewhat sensitive to gradient centrifugation and undergoes minor structural changes (discussed in detail below) so that electron micrographs (photographs of the virus under an electron microscope) do not have all the characteristics of the virus viewed without gradient ultracentrifugation. Using current methods of molecular biology it has been possible to synthesize the entire genetic structure of HIV, introduce it into cells ("transfection") and observed that the transfected cells produce HIV viral particles which can, in turn, infect other cells. This is the strongest possible proof of the existance of HIV and the one that is pointed to by Duesberg in his claim for the prize.
The dead give away for intellectual dishonesty is the practice of amphiboly; the use of equivocal, poorly worded or murkily-stated premises to further an argument. Back in school when faced with an assignment from a challenging professor that we were unable to meet, we used to refer to this strategy this way; "if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit". The folks at Virusmyth use a form of amphiboly known as moving the goalposts, wherein the premise of an argument is changed when the argument is specifically refuted.
For example, when Ed King refuted their claim that the Pasteur Institute did not establish the so-called guidelines for proving the existence of a retrovirus and when Virusmyth was forced to admit that the papers they claim supported their position did not in fact do so, they suddenly switched tactics. They claimed that although the Spectra authors did not use the non-existent Pasteur guidelines, they did not need to because those authors were purifying RNA tumor viruses (http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/data/epreplyek.htm).
When challenged by Peter Duesberg to explain why 19 full length clones of HIV does not constitute proof that the viral genome exists, they claim that it is because the viral genomes are not all of the same size or sequence (http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/data/epreplypd2.htm). Here they conveniently ignore the very well known fact that retroviral reverse transcriptase (RT) is highly error prone. More convenient for Virusmyth, is that by changing the subject they believe they have rebutted Duesberg's argument.
The reader will also note the vague and undefined nature of some of their demands in the challenge. For example they require that tissue from "matched, unhealthy subjects" be used to isolate highly purified virions which are then used to infect reputedly uninfected tissue. As they leave the term "unhealthy" undefined, they retain the ability to claim that studies which, in fact demonstrate just this, are not valid because the subjects were not either properly matched or unhealthy (http://www.virusmyth.com/aids/data/epcomreplypd.htm).
(Note; The text hyperlinked in the previous sentence is touted at the Virusmyth web site as a rebuttal to Duesberg's claim. I leave it to the reader to decide if, in fact, Virusmyth addressed Duesberg).
One of the main reasons why few researchers have, or would, take the challenge is because there simply is no percentage in it; it is clear that any claims to the reward will be dodged, the challenge while technically feasible is costly, and the language of the challenge is so inexact as to be nearly meaningless. But the most important reason why few people would claim the prize is that all the conditions as outlined in the challenge to prove the existence of HIV have already been met.
This challenge is in some ways akin to the absurd comment by Kary Mullis who has said that HIV cannot be the cause of AIDS because there isn't one paper that demonstrates that it does (http://www.valleyadvocate.com/hiv-aids/a960530.html#foreward). The absurdity of this claim has been pointed out to Dr. Mullis over and over again to no avail; the man still believes that the lack of proof for the cause of AIDS by HIV in a single paper is sufficient for him to reject the HIV/AIDS causality. The people at Virumyth have taken this kind of sophomoric thinking to heart. They insist that HIV cannot be proven to even exist unless the seven steps that they (wrongly) claim are required to prove the existence of the virus are done in a single study. Of course all of the steps listed by them have been done, several of them concurrently in a single study. But they continue to insist that because no one has done the experiments in the way they deem necessary, then the virus has not been proven to exist.
Before getting into a technically dense discussion of the evidence one might ask a simple question; is there anything a layman might accept as proof for the existence of the virus? Usually photographs are considered good proof, with the obvious fakery caveats. There are literally hundreds of papers in the primary literature with excellent images of the virus in various stages including within an infected cell, budding from a cell or free from any cells. There are even numerous such photos published on the web that you can look at right now. Here are a few.
Below I present some of the relevant literature that meets the demands of the challenge. Note that I give a restricted, limited citation list. In most cases there are many more papers (and probably some that make the point better than the ones I cite here) that could be cited but are not. I have cited only those papers that use density ultracentrifugation for virus purification, as that is one of the requirements set forth by the challenge. There are other much more powerful methods, but this is the one that Virusmyth requires so for sake of brevity, I have stuck with it. For the reader unfamiliar with scientific papers, it should be noted that in none of the citations in this FAQ do the authors address the challenge directly. That is, while the authors use the methods that the Perth Group insists upon they do not specifically address the challenge. I indicate the conditions for the challenge laid forth by the Perth Group with a (PP) before the number.
This one is easy. In fact culture of "putatively" infected tissue was first done way back in 1983 by Robert Gallo's group at the NIH in the US and Luc Montaigner's crew at the Institute Pasteur in Paris (this is in fact, how the virus was first identified) see; Gallo, RC et al. Science. 1983 May 20;220 (4599):865-7 and Barre-Sinoussi F, et al. Science 1983 May 20;220(4599):868-871.
Later, following the acrimony about just who isolated the first virus, the issue was revisited. "Two of the first human immunodeficiency virus type-1 (HIV- 1) strains isolated were authenticated by reanalyzing original cultured samples stored at the Collection Nationale de Culture des Microorganismes as well as uncultured primary material". From; Wain- Hobson S, et al. Science 1991 May 17;252(5008):961-5.
HIV can grow in chimpanzees (though it rarely causes disease) and in primary cell cultures. See; Castro BA, et al. J Med Primatol 198918(3- 4):337-42
HIV-1 culture isolates were obtained from the lymph nodes and peripheral blood mononuclear cells from 11 HIV-infected patients. See; AIDS 1994 Aug;8(8):1083-8 Tamalet C et al.
Typically, patient tissue culture isolates are derived from initial primary cultures and clones of the virus are isolated by subsequent passage through other cell types. See, for example; Saag MS, et al. Nature 1988 Aug 4;334 (6181):440-4, and Cheng-Mayer C, et al. Virology 1991 Mar;181(1):288-94.
Intrinsic biological properties, such as syncytia formation, cell tropism and cytopathogenicity of different strains of HIV have been assessed by growing primary and secondary cultures. See; von Briesen H, et al. J Med Virol 1987 Sep;23(1):51-66.
In fact, even defective HIV, that is HIV that grows very poorly and had an atypical Western blot and ELISA profile, has been cultured from tissue derived from patients. See; Huet T, et al. AIDS 1989 Nov;3 (11):707-15.
There are a great many more reports of primary tissue culture isolates of HIV. Most workers, however, use the far easier, more sensitive and cheaper method of PCR. Even so, some researchers used tissue culture of primary HIV isolates from patients infected with HIV to evaluate the cytopathogenicity, cell tropism, replication capacities of different viral strains and the correlation to clinical status. See; Lu W, Andrieu JM J Virol 1992 Jan;66(1):334-40.
The Perth Group seems to have a fixation on this method, so let's take a quick look at it, shall we? Density gradient ultracentrifugation is a method of separating thingies based on their relative densities. The technique requires that suspensions containing the virus are made up in a buffered sucrose solution. The samples are then spun at high speed in order to greatly enhance the effects of gravity resulting in the suspension of all things of similar density in a single band. Most (but not all) retroviruses have a density of 1.16 g/ml (~35% w/v sucrose), thus retroviruses should form a band on top of a solution containing 1.16 gms of sucrose per ml of buffer. Here's the thing; that density is NOT a unique characteristic of HIV or even retroviruses. That is; it is an extrinsic quality. Here's an analogy; I know that anyone who has seen the Monty Python movie the Holy Grail will remember that scene where Sir Bedevere is trying to get those English peasants to figure out what floats on water. They came up with (I think) wood, ducks and very small rocks. Same thing here; lots of stuff could sediment at 1.16 g/ml. In fact, everything that has a density of.1.16 g/ml.
Nevertheless, real scientists use the technique to isolate and purify HIV. In one paper, by Yamamoto S, et al.( J. Virol. Methods 1996 Sep; 61 (1-2):135-43) the authors used density banding to isolate viral particles and compared the qualitative and quantitative detection of reverse transcriptase (see below for the significance of this).
It IS true, as noted by the Perth people, that standard HIV-1 particle preparations created with sucrose density-equilibrium gradients are contaminated with cell-derived microvesicles, see; Bess JW Jr Virology. 1997 Mar 31;230(1):134-44 and Gluschankof P, et al. Virology 1997 Mar 31;230(1):125- 33. This does not, of course, mean that HIV banding at 1.16 g/ml is non- existent, nor does it mean that the virions cannot be separated from the microvesicles, see; Ott DE, et al. J Virol 1996 Nov;70(11):7734-43 and, for a more recent report; Dettenhofer M, Yu XF J Virol 1999 Feb;73(2):1460-7.
Note here the devious nature of their challenge and one of the reasons why they will never accept a claim to the reward. As noted by Edward King; "Scientists have highlighted the irrelevance of this insistence on purity if the HIV particles themselves are clearly present; for example, it's like saying that it is impossible to identify a German Shepherd dog by its unique appearance, if it happens to be surrounded by a pack of poodles."
But what evidence do real scientists have? Well here's a bit;
Viral particle size is usually measured either directly by electron microscopy (EM), see; Gentile M, et al. J Virol Methods 1994 Jun;48(1):43-52, and Garnier, L, et al. J. Virol. 1999 Mar;73(3):2309-20 or it is determined by rate zonal sedimentation, see; Garnier, L, et al J Virol 1998 Jun;72(6):4667- 77. By the way HIV, like many other retroviruses is about 80-120 nm in diameter.
Researchers use EM and gradient ultracentrifugation to demonstrate the presence of the virus even while acknowledging the presence of microvesicles that are clearly not viruses. "Electron microscopy of gradient-enriched preparations from supernatants of virus-infected cells revealed an excess of vesicles with a size range of about 50-500 nm, as opposed to a minor population of virus particles of about 100 nm. Electron micrographs of infected cells showed polarized vesiculation of the cell membrane, and virus budding was frequently colocalized with nonviral membrane vesiculation." From; Gluschankof P, et al. Virology 1997 Mar 31;230 (1):125-33. See also; Meerloo T, et al. J Gen Virol. 1993 Jan;74:129-35.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, very few people take the Perth Group seriously. There is a great deal of effort underway to generate a vaccine. One of the things that is likely to be required for an effective modified virus vaccine is a highly pure, homogenous batch of HIV that is inactive (so that people do not get infected from the vaccine). This has been accomplished, see; Richieri SP, et al. Vaccine 1998 Jan-Feb;16 (2-3):119-29. These folks even have very nice thin section electron microscopy evidence showing a homogenous field of intact viral particles. They purified the HIV particles by both anion-exchange chromatography and by sucrose density gradient ultracentrifugation.
Some workers have even isolated viral cores. After first purifying and concentrating the virions themselves, the viral capsules are then removed by detergent and the cores containing the viral genome and associated proteins is visualized by EM (Welker R. et al. J Virol 2000 Feb;74(3):1168-77).
Done. In intact virions the process is called natural endogenous reverse transcription (NERT) and has been demonstrated, see; Zhang H, et al. J Virol 1996 May;70(5):2809-24, Zhang H, et al. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses 1998 Apr;14 Suppl 1:S93-5, and Busso M, Resnick L, J Virol Methods 1994 Apr;47(1-2):129-39 (also shown in SIV; see Dornadula G, et al. Virology 1997 Jan 6;227(1):260-7). Yamamoto S, et al.( J. Virol. Methods 1996 Sep; 61(1-2):135- 43) used density banding to isolate viral particles and compared the qualitative and quantitative detection of reverse transcriptase assays. In fact, one can even measure intraviral RT activity in the blood of patients who are positive for HIV; Zhang H, et al. J Virol 1996 Jan;70 (1):628-34.
In the course of looking for a vpr gene protein in HIV, HIV particles were banded on a sucrose density gradient and reverse transcriptase activity was detected in just the fractions expected for a retrovirus (Cohen et al J. Virology 64:3097-3099, 1990). RT activity can be detected in the (cell free) sera of infected people but not in the sera of uninfected people (Heneine W et al J Infect Dis 1995 May;171(5):1210-6, Pyra H., et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 1994 Feb 15;91(4):1544-8, Boni J., et al. J Med Virol 1996 May;49(1):23-8
One report demonstrates that antiretroviral drugs work even on highly purified virions. The RT activity of HIV occurs primarily in the cytoplasm of the infected cell, but there is evidence that sometimes the virions can initiate reverse transcription prior to infection (Lori et al. J Virol 1992 Aug;66(8):5067-74) RT inhibitors inhibited transcription of RT activity associated with highly purified virions (see; Ventura, M.,et al, Arch Virol 1999;144(3):513-23
As noted above, HIV virions have even been shown to contain HIV DNA (Lori F, et al. J Virol 1992 Aug; 66(8):5067-74). As HIV is a retrovirus, I will leave it to the reader to consider the problem for Virusmyth in explaining where, exactly, retroviral DNA found in the virions comes from.
Well, apart from the RT examples above, I'll just give some of the evidence for the viral protein, gag. There is, of course, a lot of the same evidence available for other viral proteins. The acronym gag is derived from group-specific antigen because it was found that a single antiserum from an infected person was capable of cross-reacting with related retroviruses. The gag gene encodes four proteins in the mature virus, the capsid (p24), matrix (p17), nucleocapsid (p7) and p6 proteins. These processed gag proteins play different roles in the HIV lifecycle including (but not limited to) budding (p6), core structure (capsid), genome RNA architecture (nucleocapsid) and viral capsule structure (matrix). The gag precursor protein plays an important role in the structure of the immature viral capsule.
There is, of course, a huge amount of evidence based on the more powerful, specific and sensitive PCR techniques, but I'll stick to the Perth Group's need for this particular methodology. The following papers used ultracentrifugation to purify HIV virions. Evidence for sequence determinants of HIV genome encoded gag genes that control the size, shape, morphogenesis and budding of viral particles purified by ultracentrifugation; Garnier, L, et al J Virol 1998 Jun;72(6):4667-77, Wang CT, et al. J Virol. 1998 Oct;72(10):7950-9, Dawson L & Yu, XF Virology 1998 Nov 10;251(1):141-57 and Reicin AS, et al. J Virol 1996 Dec;70(12):8645-52.
Ah, well. We now come across another canard of the Perth Group; "unhealthy subjects". Weasel room, if I've ever seen it. You see; no matter how many times the experiment is done, they can dodge claims to the prize by saying something to the effect of; "ah, but since your controls did not have (insert lacking illness here), they are not proper controls. Therefore HIV doesn't exist."
**Sigh** What can anyone say to this? Well not much. However, controls like this have been done since the very earliest days of the epidemic. For example, in a very early report patients with AIDS had serum that contained anti-HTLV antibodies while serum from 25 patients who did not have AIDS did not react to HTLV (early on in the epidemic when it was clear that it was caused by an infectious agent, most likely a virus and prior to the identification of HIV, it was thought that the virus was actually HTLV). Karpas A, et al. Mol Biol Med 1983 Nov;1(4):457-459.
See Gallo, RC et al. Science. 1983 May 20;220(4599):865-7 and Barre- Sinoussi F,et al. Science 1983 May 20;220(4599):868-871 for the original papers on the identification of HIV (called HTLV-III by Gallo and LAV by Montagnier). They used non-infected tissue controls. Also; Gelmann EP,et al. Science 1983 May 20;220(4599):862-865
Leaving aside the Perth Group's required degree of purity, infecting cells with virus derived from infected people has been done since very early on in the epidemic. It is a routine way to derive patient isolates or to obtain viral clones (see, for example; Saag MS, et al. Nature 1988 Aug 4;334(6181):440- 4, and Cheng-Mayer C, et al. Virology 1991 Mar;181(1):288-94. As noted above).
Perhaps the best evidence for the existence of the virus was outlined by Peter Duesberg when he claimed Virusmyth's prize. He pointed out that by use of modern molecular biology techniques scientists have been able to reconstruct intact viruses that are infectious (see for example, Page et al, J. Virol. 64:5270-5276, 1990). Of course there is no ethical way that the virus, reconstructed or not, can be used to demonstrate the pathology of the virus, but we can prove that the virus exists. Fore example, it has been shown by PCR that cells from infected persons contain HIV DNA but cells from uninfected people do not (see; Bagasra O, et al. N Engl J Med 326:1385-1391, 1992, Ho DD, et al. N Engl J Med 1989 Dec 14;321(24):1621-5, Rouzioux C, et al. AIDS 1992 Apr;6(4):373-7, Alimenti A, et al. AIDS 1994 Jul;8(7):895-900).
Duesberg in claiming the prize, noted that "The existence of the retrovirus HIV predicts that HIV DNA can be isolated from the chromosomal DNA of infected cells. This prediction has been confirmed as follows: Full-length HIV-1 and HIV-2 DNAs have been prepared from virus-infected cells and cloned in bacterial plasmids (Fisher AG et al, Nature 1985 Jul 18-24;316(6025):262-5, Levy, JA et al. Science 1986 May 23;232(4753):998-1001 and Barnett, SW et al. J Virol 1993 Feb;67(2):1006-14). Such clones are totally free of all viral and cellular proteins, and cellular contaminants that co-purify with virus. These clones produce infectious virus that is neutralized by specific antisera from AIDS patients. For example, virus produced by infectious HIV-2 DNA is neutralized by antiserum from HIV-2 but not from HIV-1-infected people (Barnett, SW et al. J Virol 1993 Feb;67(2):1006-14)."
The evidence for the existence of HIV presented in the papers cited in this FAQ is not comprehensive. It is not meant to be. Instead the point here has been to show that despite the fact that there has been no one who has taken up Virusmyth's challenge, there is indisputable evidence that HIV exists even when using the Perth Group's favored methods. They have constructed a strawman challenge that has led them to a claim that would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that there are some groups out there who use arguments like Virusmyth's to make the claim that AIDS is not caused by HIV. If the virus doesn't even exist, so the argument goes, there is no way that it can cause AIDS. Frightened, desperate and uninformed people are then led to believe that they need not seek treatment for their infection. In this way, Virusmyth is indirectly responsible for the suffering and deaths of people fooled by their pseudoscience. Some of the members of the Perth Group are scientists and they commit the worst sin any scientist can; they ignore data that falsifies their hypothesis. They have much to answer for.
*Michael Coon, is an Immunologist currently working on mechanisms of T effector cell differentiation with respect to their role in complications arising from bone marrow transplant. In the HIV/AIDs arena, He worked for many years on local AIDS community issues. and has worked professionally in the HIV molecular epidemiology lab of Jim Mullins at Stanford U. and the University of Washington.
Copyright © 2000 - Michael Coon
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