specific arrangement or organization of the data), in a publication whose central ideas are based on the data, or in an invention that is based on the data. We will consider each of these related issues in turn.

Copyright, Database Protections, and Licensing

In the United States, copyright protection is extended to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.…”28 Copyright holders enjoy the exclusive right to disseminate their creations and to earn a profit by selling or licensing them. Raw data and other facts, however, are not protected as copyrightable subject matter. Databases are copyrightable if the selections or arrangement are original; the mere compilation of facts or data into a collection does not entitle them to protection. These provisions were reinforced by the 1991 Supreme Court ruling in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., which limited copyright protection for databases to those arranged and selected in an original manner.29 In addition, the federal government is prohibited from exerting copyright protection over its own publications, including data generated by government entities. Finally, copyright law includes provisions for “fair use” exceptions in which portions of a copyrighted work may be used without permission in teaching, research, and other specified pursuits.

This basic framework has served to support the open flow of research data. Federal agencies have been central in sustaining a strong public domain in data.30 With regard to research data, private companies and nonprofit entities play an important role in creating databases and information services that are utilized by researchers. The existence of copyright protection for creative and original data collections provides an incentive for investments in valuable products and services in the private sector.

Digital technologies have introduced new considerations into copyright laws and enforcement.31 Technological barriers to violating copyrights have fallen, posing challenges to copyright-based industries such as music, newspapers, and motion pictures. Before the digital age, the trigger for a copyright violation of a printed document was the act of copying. A photocopy of a document for personal use falls under the fair-use provisions, but copying now can be done almost effortlessly. If a document is made into a PDF file that can be circulated on the Internet, the distinction between private use and publication vanishes.


U.S. Code, Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 102. Available at http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode17/usc_sec_17_00000102----000-.html.


499 U.S. 340 (1991).Available at http://laws.findlaw.com/us/499/340.html.


National Research Council. 2003. The Role of Scientific and Technical Data and Information in the Public Domain: Proceedings of a Symposium. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


National Research Council. 2000. The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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