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Data Management Services

Basic Intellectual Property Rights in Data Management: Overview

Intellectual property rights (IPR) management is an important part of any data management plan. A builder of a database or other data resource will have an interest in who owns that resource and how others may use it. Someone who may populate that resource with data provided in part by others will want to make sure that all legal, ethical, and professional obligations that one may have to the provider of the data are met. Since the benefits of data sharing are so well known and documented, a researcher may wish to share their database and/or content with others. Others can only fully utilize external data if they know the terms of use (if any) for that data. This guide provides a brief overview of some of the issues associated with managing IPR in your data projects.

Data Versus Database

In any data project, there are likely to be two components. The first is the data collected, assembled, or generated. Think of it as the raw content in the system. It could be hourly temperature readings from a sensor, the age of individuals in a survey, recordings of individual voices, or photographs of plant specimens. The second component is the data system in which the data is stored and managed.

We usually do not think of data content separate from the system in which it is stored, but the distinction is important in terms of intellectual property rights. The question is what, if anything, is protected by copyright. Data that is factual has no copyright protection under U.S. law; it is not possible to copyright facts. Not all data is in the public domain. A project might, for example, use copyrighted photographs; the photographs are part of the project’s “data.” In many cases, the data in a data management system as well as the metadata describing that data will be factual, and hence not protected by copyright.

A database, on the other hand, can have a thin layer of copyright protection. Deciding what data needs to be included in a database, how to organize the data, and how to relate different data elements are all creative decisions that may receive copyright protection.

Because of the different copyright status of databases and data content, different mechanisms are required to manage each. Copyright can govern the use of databases and some data content (that which is itself original), but contract law, trademarks, and other mechanisms are required to regulate factual data.

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Data Licensing

In order to facilitate the reuse of data, it is imperative that others know the terms of use for the database and the data content. Creative Commons ( offers a library of standardized licenses, some of which may be used with data. We recommend the CC BY 4.0 license in most cases. The three Creative Commons licenses most relevant to data management are:

  1. CC Attribution 4.0 International (“CC BY 4.0”): Use the CC BY 4.0 license to waive all copyright and database rights except the right to attribution. This license protects your right to be acknowledged for your work while otherwise encouraging reuse.

  2. CC0 ("CC Zero" or "No Rights Reserved"): Use the CC0 license to waive all copyright and database rights, including your right to attribution. This license effectively places the work into the public domain and maximizes the likelihood of reuse.

  3. Public Domain Mark ("PDM"): Use the Public Domain Mark mark for work that is in the public domain, and for which there are no known copyright or database restrictions. It is possible to flag factual data as PDM in a database, for example, in order to make it clear it is free to use.

Creative Commons does not recommend use of any NonCommercial (NC) or NoDerivatives (ND) licenses. For more information, see this article on the Creative Commons wiki

In addition to Creative Commons, the Open Data Commons group ( has developed a number of legally binding tools to govern the use of databases and data. Using a combination of copyright and contractual standards, they have created three standard licenses. In addition, Open Data Commons has developed a suite of “community norms” that complement use of the formal licenses. While not carrying the force of law, these norms may be used to express your beliefs about appropriate data sharing and reuse.

The three ODC licenses are:

  1. Public Domain Dedication and License ("PDDL"): This dedicates the database and its content to the public domain, free for everyone to use as they see fit.

  2. Attribution License ("ODC-By"): Users are free to use the database and its content in new and different ways, provided they provide attribution to the source of the data and/or the database.

  3. Open Database License ("ODC-ODbL"): The ODbL stipulates that any subsequent use of the database must provide attribution, an unrestricted version of the new product must always be accessible, and any new products made using ODbL material must be distributed using the same terms. It is the most restrictive of all ODC licenses.

Selecting a License

There is no single right answer as to which license to assign to a database or data content. Note, however, that anything other than a CC0 or ODC PDDL license may present challenges for subsequent users of your data. This is because of the problem of "attribution stacking." It may be possible to extract data from a dataset, use it in a research project, and still maintain information as to the source of that data. It is possible to create a dataset derived from hundreds of sources with each source requiring acknowledgement. Furthermore, the data in the other databases may not have originated with it, but instead have been sourced from other databases that also demand attribution. Rather than legally require that everyone provide attribution to the data, it might be enough to express the community norm that says “if you make extensive use of data from this dataset, please credit the authors.”

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Data Ownership at Georgia Southern University

The ownership of works produced by Georgia Southern faculty, students, and non-academic staff is governed by the University System of Georgia's Policy on the Use of Copyrighted Works in Education and Research and Georgia Southern University's Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer Policy. The precise answer will depend on whether the project was created as part of sponsored research; the employment status of the creator; whether the work was conducted pursuant to a specific direction or assigned duty; and, whether substantial university resources were used in the creation of the work. Please consult with the Office of Research to ensure that you are in compliance with these guidelines.

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Related Information

CC0 (+BY). Cohen, Dan. 2013. A call for using CC0 with data, tempered by an ethical obligation to attribute.

Copyright Guide for Scientific Software. Albert, Kendra, Bouquin, Daina, Farber, Alena, & Hoover, Russell. 2019. Zenodo. A joint project of the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic and the Center for Astrophysics, in association with the Software Preservation Network, that provides clear, easy-to-read answers to common questions about how scientific software and copyright interact.

How to License Research Data. Ball, Alex. 2012. Written with British law in mind, but it has a good discussion of the pros and cons of the ODC licenses.

Licensing Open Data: A Practical Guide. Korn, Naomi and Oppenheim, Charles. 2011. Another guide written with UK law in mind, but with a helpful comparison of CC and ODC licensing options.

Open Data. Wikipedia.

Open Licenses. Project Open Data. The US Federal Government guide to open licenses and dedications.

RDA & CODATA Legal Interoperability of Research Data: Principles and Implementation Guidelines - Now Published. Research Data Alliance. A set of practical guidelines for researchers dealing with legal aspects of sharing data.

Sharing Research Data and Intellectual Property Law: A Primer. Carroll, Michael W. 2015. An introduction to the various kinds of property rights that can be associated with research data.

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For help, contact the GS Commons Team at A team member will respond as soon as possible during regular business hours.