Is data copyrighted? Copyright law does not apply to facts, data, or ideas. In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work. However, copyright may protect a collection of data as contained in a database or compilation, but only if it meets certain requirements. Simply working really hard to gather the data – what the Supreme Court called the “sweat of the brow” doctrine – is not enough. In order for a database to qualify for copyright protection, the author has to make choices about the selection, coordination, or arrangement of the facts or data, and those choices must be at least a little bit creative. It is important to remember that even if a database or compilation is arranged with sufficient originality to qualify for copyright protection, the facts and data within that database are still in the public domain. Anyone can take those facts and reuse or republish them, as long as that person arranges them in a new way. Unless they are accessible only under a contract that conditions access on limiting how the facts and data may or may not be used; any such contract would control.
Can data be shared with others? In order to facilitate the reuse of data, it is important that others know the terms on which you are making both the database and the data content available.The Open Data Commons (ODC) group has created three standard licenses that can be used in conjunction with data projects. In addition, it is possible to articulate a set of “community norms” that complement the use of formal licenses.
The three ODC licenses are:
Creative Commons also has a library of standardized licenses, and some of them can be applied to data and databases. The ODC-By license, for example, is the equivalent of a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY). CC BY licenses, however, are based on copyright ownership of the underlying work, whereas the ODC-By license can apply to works that are not protected by copyright (such as factual data).
The two CC licenses that are of greatest relevance to data management are:
Federal agencies such as the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation have specific requirements about data sharing. If collecting data as part of a federally funded research project, please be sure to check the policies of the funding agency.
What about privacy? Just because data is not protected by copyright, does not mean there are no other legal considerations for the collection and dissemination of data. Privacy is also an important legal consideration. Research in a wide range of fields may include information about individuals that is protected either by federal privacy legislation, state privacy laws, or by commitments made by the researchers. Even attempts to anonymize data before sharing it do not ensure that individual research subjects will not be identifiable. As a result, it is best to follow rules adopted by the University or funding agency or the best practices set forth in your discipline.
This short video was produced by the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (or ESIP Federation's). It contains great general information, however, for researchers and students in any field of study who are concerned with copyright issues related to data and data management.