Intellectual property data involves the ownership of databases and other data-associated resources and the use and distribution of these creations. Users of databases must meet professional, legal, and ethical obligations when sharing data and database contents with others. The terms of use of a data set details these obligations.

Data vs. Database Protection

Most data projects have two components: the data collected, and the system where the data lives and how it's administered. When it comes to intellectual property rights, the data and the database that stores receives separate consideration in terms of eligibility copyright protection.

Factual data cannot be copyright protected in the United States, but not all data is necessarily fact-based. For example, photographs or other original content stored in a database could receive copyright protection. In addition, the database itself receives copyright protection based on its data organization and retrieval, both of which receive creative element classification. Governing factual data are mechanisms including trademarks and contract law.

Data Licensing

Before reusing data it's important to understand the terms of use for both the database and its contents. The Open Data Commons group developed legally binding tools for fair use including three standard licenses used for data projects:

  • Data elements covered by the Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL) are in the public domain and are for free use and sharing by anyone.
  • The Attribution License (ODC-By) allows the public to freely modify, share, and use the data elements if they provide attribution as to the source of the database and data.
  • The ODC-ODbl license requires all use of the data and database to receive attribution and any new products created from the existing elements made freely accessible and distributed under the same terms as the original data elements. This is the most restrictive data license from ODC.

Supplementing these formal licenses are agreed-upon community norms for data sharing and use

Some of the standard licenses developed by Creative Commons (CC) also cover databases and data. The Creative Commons Attribution license shares the same terms as the ODC-By license; however, the so-called CC BY license requires the covered works to have a copyright whereas the ODC-By license covers factual data and other items that cannot be copyrighted. 

The most important CC licenses for data management include:

  • The CC0 licenses allow the copyright owner to waive his or her copyright by placing a database in the public domain, similar to the PDDL license.
  • The public domain mark (PDM) covers works in the public domain with no known database or copyright restrictions. For example, the PMD license marks factual data as free to use. 

Selecting a Data License

It's best to license data and databases using PDDL, ODC, or CC0 licenses to avoid causing issues for future users of the content. For example, if data taken from a database and used for research has an attributed source. Combining dozens or hundreds of data sets into a single database, however, would all require attribution, a problem called attribution stacking. Some of those data sets may have originated from other databases, which would also require attribution. Many communities avoid this problem by creating a norm that requiring a credit to authors only for the extensive use of a specific data set.

The Role of Intellectual Property

Intellectual property categories are either artistic or industrial. Industrial rights include inventions, trade names, logos, and scientific discoveries, all of which are typically protected by trademarks or patents. These type of rights protects against unfair competition for 20 years. Artistic rights include artwork, print, music, film, plays, and databases and data content, all of which receive copyright coverage. 

Data and methods of compiling and organizing data are not eligible for patent protection. However, data and databases fall under protected trade secrets because they drive economic value for a business.

Fair Use

To use copyrighted material, you must obtain permission from the owner of the copyright. Sometimes, this permission will be freely granted, while other times requiring a payment. Using a copyrighted work without permission is fair use. An example of this is quoting from a copyrighted work in another book; this falls under fair use when including an attribution.

If you need help with protecting your data-associated intellectual property, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.