Can you copyright a database in the United States?

Can you copyright a database in the United States?

A database is a structured set of data held in a computer, that is accessible in various ways.  Databases are used by various different entities, from businesses keeping track of their customers to museums cataloging their works of art.  Databases make up an increasing important of the global economy.  Some companies sell databases as products.  Building up large sets of data can be expensive and time consuming, database providers help defray the cost of building and maintaining a database across multiple customers.  Database providers need the ability to protect time and money that they invest in their databases.  In the United States, Copyright can be a useful tool that database providers can use to prevent the unauthorized copying of their database products, but there are limitations to the protections copyright law will provide to databases.

In the United States databases can be protected as compilations under the Copyright Act. Under the Copyright Act, a compilation is defined as a A “compilation” is 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. The term “compilation” includes collective works. 17. U.S.C. § 101.  The preexisting material may be material that can be granted on its own, or it maybe material that is not granted copyright protection.   The same originality requirement applies to compilations as to all other works eligible for copyright protection.

A separate section clarified the scope of protection for compilations, specifying that the copyright in a compilation or derivative work extends only to the material contributed by the author of such work, as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work, and does not imply any exclusive right in the preexisting material. The copyright in such work is independent of, and does not affect or enlarge the scope, duration, ownership, or subsistence of, any copyright protection in the preexisting material. 17. U.S.C. § 103(b). 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.”

Distilled down to the most basic terms, a database can be copyrighted, there must be some level of originality to the database, and the copyright granted on the database does not extend to the individual elements that make up the database.

If you have questions about copyrighting a database you should consult with an attorney that is familiar with copyright law.