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What Legal (IP) Rights Are There in Data(bases)

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When talking about data(bases) we first need to distinguish between the structure and the content of a database (when we use the term ‘data’ we shall mean the content of the database itself). Structural elements include things like the field names and a model for the data – the organization of these fields and their inter-relation.

In many jurisdictions it is likely that the structural elements of a database will be covered by copyright (it depends somewhat on the level of ‘creativity’ involved in creating this structure).

However, here we are particularly interested in the data. When we talk of “data” we need to be a bit careful because the word isn’t particularly precise: “data” can mean a few items or even a single item (for example a single bibliographic record, a lat/long etc) or “data” can mean a large collection (e.g. all the material in the database). To avoid confusion we shall reserve the term “content” to mean the individual items, and data to denote the collection.

Unlike for material such as text, music or film, the legal situation for data varies widely across countries. However, most jurisdictions do grant some rights in the data (as a collection).

This distinction between the “content” of a database and the collection is especially crucial for factual databases since no jurisdiction grants a monopoly right over the individual facts (the “content”), even though it may grant right(s) in them as a collection. To illustrate, consider the simple example of a database which lists the melting point of various substances. While the database as a whole might be protected by law so that one is not allow to access, re-use or redistribute it without permission, this would never prevent you from stating the fact that substance Y melts at temperature Z.

Forms of protection fall broadly into two cases:

  • Copyright for compilations
  • A sui generis right for collections of data

As we have already emphasized, there are no general rules and the situation varies by jurisdiction. Thus we proceed country by country detailing which (if any) of these approaches is used in a particular jurisdiction.

Finally, we should point out that in the absence of any legal protection, many providers of (closed) databases are able to use a simple contract combined with legal provisions prohibiting violation of access-control mechanisms to achieve results similar to a formal IP right. For example, if X is a provider of a citation database, it can achieve any set of terms of conditions it wants simply by:

(a) Requiring users to login with a password (b) Only providing a user with an account and password on the condition that the user agrees to the terms and conditions

You can read more about the jurisdiction by jurisdiction situation in the Guide to Open Data Licensing.