Can You Copy Raw Data From A Protected Database?

The copyright in a database of raw data extends only to the selection, coordination, and arrangement of the data contained in the database and to any new expression the database author adds.

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Many databases are fact compilations -- collections of individual bits of data or facts that are not entitled to copyright protection by themselves. For example, names and addresses or numerical data may not qualify for copyright in their own right. The copyright in such a database extends only to the selection, coordination, and arrangement of the data contained in the database and to any new expression the database author adds—for instance, instructions on how to use the database. The raw data itself is not protected. This is sometimes called a thin copyright.

Since the copyright in a fact compilation extends only to the compiler’s selection and arrangement of the facts, the raw facts or data themselves are not protected by copyright. The Supreme Court has stated that the raw facts may be copied at will and that a compiler is even free to use the facts contained in another’s compilation to aid in preparing a competing compilation (Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 111 S.Ct. 1282 (1991)). But the competing work may not feature the exact same selection and arrangement as the earlier compilation—provided that this selection and arrangement pass the minimal creativity test as described in the previous section.

This means that a database user may extract the individual bits of data from a fact compilation database without incurring liability for copyright infringement, but may not copy the entire database, since this would involve copying the copyright owner’s protected expression—that is, selection and arrangement (provided it is minimally creative).

EXAMPLE: A website called Who’s Alive and Who’s Dead contains the birth and—where applicable—death dates for over 1,700 celebrities, political figures, sports stars, and others. This interesting ways. For example, you look up your favorite television show and see when the cast members were born and if any are dead. This website is a simple database. The creators of this database are entitled to copyright protection for the way they have selected and arranged the material on their web- site. However, they do not have a copyright in the individual facts in their database—meaning they don’t own the birth and death dates of celebrities. These facts are not protectible by copyright. Anyone can look up a birth date in the database and use that date without obtaining permission from the creators of the database. There is no need to go back to the original sources the database’s creators used to compile their database, such as newspaper obituary records or government records of births and deaths.

It may seem unfair that the facts contained in a database gathered at great trouble and expense may be used by others without violating the copyright laws. However, the purpose of copyright s to advance the progress of knowledge, not to reward authors. If the first person to compile a group of raw facts acquired a monopoly over them, progress would be greatly impeded. This might not seem so serious if we were only talking about birth and death dates of celebrities. But many databases contain far more vital information that no one should be allowed

But, don’t get the idea that raw facts in databases may always be freely copied. Database owners can use laws other than copyright to prevent the public from doing just that.

Copyright protection is greater where a database is a collective work—a work consisting of materials entitled to their own copyright protection. In this event, the database owner holds a thin copyright in the selection and arrangement of the entire database, and the items contained in the database may be protected individually. For example, each article contained in a full-text bibliographic database may be protected by copyright, as well as the selection and arrangement of the database as a whole.

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