Businesses across various industries rely on databases. Databases are typically maintained on computer systems, and may hold important information about customers, clients, employees, products, or other business data. But is the information protectable under U.S. copyright law?
Normally, mere facts are not entitled to copyright protection. Many databases are fact compilations—collections of individual bits of data or facts that would not, on their own, be protected as copyrightable creations.
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” because the level of protection is relatively low.
Copyright protection is greater where a database is a collective work—a work consisting of materials entitled to their own copyright protection (such as photos). 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.
Because 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. (See, for example, the case of 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.
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).
A quick example helps to illustrate the copyright protections that are, and are not, available to databases. A website called “Who’s Alive and Who’s Dead” contains the birth and death dates for over 1,700 celebrities, political figures, sports stars, and others. You might, for instance, look up your favorite television show and see when the cast members were born and whether any are dead.
This website is a simple database. The creators of this database are entitled to copyright protection for the way they selected and arranged the material on their website. However, they do not have a copyright in the individual facts in their database, meaning they do not “own” the birth and death dates of celebrities. These facts are not protectable by copyright law. 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 that 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 law is primarily to advance the progress of knowledge, not to allow authors to establish exclusive dominions over important information. 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 to monopolize.
Just because copyright law does not protect all databases does not mean that databases can always be freely copied. Database owners can use laws other than copyright to prevent the public from doing just that.
Many databases may be considered to contain proprietary trade secrets, meaning that you would face civil liability of you tried to “steal” the information and use it for your own commercial purposes. Be particularly careful if you are a former employee and attempt to take data from your former employer. In many cases, employees sign lengthy non-competition and nondisclosure agreements that would explicitly prevent you from using databases obtained from your employer. Many employers will aggressively litigate against former employees to protect such proprietary information, even if the databases are not protected by copyright.