Can I Stop Others From Copying My Online Lists of Local Businesses?

Question

I am collecting and compiling a lot of public information about local businesses and plan to publish these as series of lists in a book and on my personal website. These lists will include general information such as company names, descriptions, addresses, and phone numbers. If I publish the lists, can I stop others from copying them?

Answer

Generally speaking, you cannot claim a copyright in mere facts. In other words, you cannot copyright the addresses and phone numbers of businesses in your area, since these bits of data are already publicly available. However, you can copyright certain creative elements of the database that you are describing.

A well-known U.S. Supreme Court case, known as Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991), provides some insight into this area of the law. There, the Court allowed a company to copy a local telephone book prepared by another company on the ground that facts are not subject to copyright protection and collections of facts are not subject to copyright violations unless there is creativity involved in how the facts are arranged. The Court held that merely arranging names alphabetically did not involve adequate creativity to extend protection to the phone book as a "collection of facts."

You seek to create a registry of local businesses, including their names, addresses, phone numbers, and descriptions. While you might not have protection in the facts of the businesses' names or locations, you would have a copyright in any original descriptions that you write, for example reviews of restaurants or ratings of customer service quality. Any photographs that you take of those businesses for inclusion in your directory would be protected. You would also have a copyright in the arrangement of your database. That is, if you arrange your directory in a creative way, organizing the businesses based on your ranking, you would have a copyright in that arrangement.

If your lists lack any creative choices, however, you will have a much harder time stopping others from copying from it.

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