Copyright Protection for Data and Databases

Who owns the data that you use to make informed business decisions? 

As we rely on ever increasing amounts of data for decision-making, understanding the legal landscape surrounding data becomes crucial. This article explains how copyright law applies to data in general and data compilations and databases in particular. It explores the nuances of copyright protection, the criteria for copyrightability, and the forms of authorship recognized in data compilations.

The article also discusses the importance of copyright registration and provides a global perspective on database protection.

Copyright protection in general

A copyright grants exclusive rights to the copyright owner, including the rights of reproduction, display, distribution, and adaptation (i.e., the right to create derivative works). The law provides these rights in order to incentivize creators and give them a financial incentive to publicize and popularize their original output.

Copyright law protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” (17 U.S.C. § 102). 

Copyright protection for data compilations (databases)

Raw facts and ideas are not copyrightable. 

However, compilations of information are entitled to copyright protection if the information was organized in a creative, original fashion. Copyright protection is limited to the expression of facts and ideas, not the facts or ideas themselves.

In order to qualify for copyright protection, a data compilation must meet the following requirements:

Let us look at these requirements in greater detail.


We just saw that a data compilation must be original in order to be protected by copyright. This requirement of originality can be satisfied by the following types of authorship:


The next requirement for copyright protection is creativity. In the case of data compilations, the level of creativity required by copyright law is relatively low, as it simply requires that the work "possess some creative spark, 'no matter how crude, humble or obvious' it might be." See Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991)


The last requirement for copyrighting a database is that the data be fixed or recorded. Here, we are discussing data stored on computers or computer servers where it is readily available for retrieval. For the purposes of copyright law, this means of storage is considered as ‘fixing’ the data compilation.

Authorship of data compilations 

A single piece of copyrighted material can have more than one form of authorship, each claimed by the same or several different people or organizations. 

For example, a Broadway musical may have several different people claiming authorship under copyright law — the playwright for writing the play, the composer for composing the music, the lyricist for writing the lyrics, the director for directing the performance and so on.

In a similar vein, the Copyright Office recognizes three distinct forms of authorship in data compilations. These three forms of authorship can coexist in a single data compilation. For example, one researcher might select data from multiple sources (selection authorship), another researcher might categorize and organize it (coordination authorship), and a third researcher might present it in a visually appealing and user-friendly format (arrangement authorship). 

This entire compilation would be protected by copyright and all three researchers would be credited with different forms of authorship.

Copyright protection for ‘data containers’

As we have seen, copyright law can extend its protection to data compilations, subject to certain conditions. This protection can also cover the “containers” of data, which include software and certain elements of software that port, manage, and/or organize the data. 

These elements include:

Database protection: A global perspective

The European Union’s Database Directive (96/9/EC) provides separate legal protection for databases that meet certain criteria. The database must contain a substantial investment in obtaining, verifying, or presenting the contents. It must be original in the sense that it is not a mere collection of data. Furthermore, the database must be protected by copyright or a sui generis right.

Other jurisdictions, such as Japan and South Korea, also provide separate legal protection for databases that meet certain criteria. 

This highlights the global recognition of the importance of database protection in today’s digital age.

Copyright registration of databases

The benefits of copyright registration

Registering your copyright not only fortifies your legal standing but also opens up avenues for recourse. It empowers the rightsholder to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Moreover, if the work was registered within three months of first publication or prior to the infringement, the rightsholder can seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

Requirements for registering an electronic database

When it comes to registering an electronic database with the U.S. Copyright Office, there are specific requirements to be met. The contents of the database must be systematically arranged and accessed solely through an integrated information retrieval program or system. This system should use a query function to access the content and yield a subset of the content or organize the content based on the parameters specified in each query.

A typical application to register a database covers the selection, coordination, and/or arrangement of data, information, or files. However, it does not cover the data, information, or files themselves unless they are specifically claimed in the application.


Copyright protection is a valuable tool for providing creators exclusive rights to their original data and data compilations. 

To do this effectively, you need to understand the basics of copyright law — from the criteria for copyrightability to the forms of authorship. Once the data is protected by copyright, you can consider monetizing it by licensing the data to other businesses.