Copyright Protection of “Databases”

Copyright law is covered by the Copyright Act of 1976, codified at 17 USC s 101 et seq. Some pertinent sections include, Sections 101, 102 and 103. Section 101 defines “compilation” as: “A work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship”. Section 102(b) provides: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” Section 103 limits the protection of a compilation to the author’s original contributions and not the facts or information conveyed.

Databases are collections of facts. Facts themselves are not granted copyright protection, but if they are compiled in an original manner, the compilation is protected. A minimal degree of creativity in putting together the facts in the compilation, is required. This creativity can be represented bythe facts chosen, the order in which they are placed and the arrangement chosen to serve a particular purpose (allowing the reader to effectively use the facts). Even if there is a valid copyright of the compilation of the facts (which themselves cannot be copyrighted), a subsequent compiler can use the facts contained in another’s compilation to use in a competing work, as long as the selection and arrangement of the competing work is not the same. The reason is that the facts do not become original through association (by being included in the compilation) and therefore, the copyright is limited to the particular selection and arrangement (the author’s contribution). To allow the facts such protection would grant a monopoly in public domain materials.

In order for a database / compilation to have copyright protection, there must be a collection and assembly of pre-existing material, facts, or data; the selection, coordination, or arrangement of those materials; and the creation by virtue of the particular selection, coordination, or arrangement, of an “original” work of authorship. Feist Publications, Inc. v Rural Telephone Service Co. 499 US 340 (1991). The principle focus should be on whether the selection, coordination, and arrangement are sufficiently original to merit protection. It has to be made independently without copying and it has to show a minimal level of creativity. Copyright rewards originality, not effort.

Bottom line: A database copyright at most will only protect the author’s original contributions and not the facts or information conveyed even if the facts or information were arrived at only through the industriousness of someone else. See Miller v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 650 F2d, at 1369-1370.


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