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Communications of the ACM

Virtual extension

One Size Does Not Fit All: Legal Protection For Non-Copyrightable Data

The web has become the largest data repository on the planet. An important factor contributing to its success is its openness and ease of use: anyone can contribute data to, and consume data from, the Web. As Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, said, "the exciting thing is serendipitous reuse of data: one person puts data up there for one thing, and another person uses it another way." Such serendipitous data reuse is extremely valuable. Through reuse, new knowledge can be created, innovation and value-added services become possible.

However, there have been efforts to regulate and legally challenge data reuse activities. The European Union (EU) has adopted the Database Directive to restrict unauthorized data extraction and reuse. In the U.S., Congress has considered six bills, all of which failed to pass into law. These legislative activities are summarized in Figure 1; more details are furnished later. The significant uncertainty and the international differences in database legislation have created serious challenges to the "serendipitous reuse of data." The dual purposes of this article, both related to the theme "one size does not fit all," are to: summarize the range of legislation in current use and proposed; and present an economic model for interpreting or recommending policy choices that depend on factors such as cost of database creation and level of database differentiation.

As computing professionals continue to develop technologies (such as data extraction, Web mashups, Web services, and various Semantic Web technologies) to make data reuse much easier, it is important for us to understand the legal implications when applying these technologies for data reuse purposes.

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