Techdirt has a write-up on something I had never heard of–a special copyright introduced in 1996 which protects the contents of databases, even if all the works they list are public domain. The case Techdirt profiles involves a company which wanted to obtain some government records from the 1700s and 1800s and were told they could not:

“In order to justify an exclusive right to its database, the department of Vienne told the court it had “committed more than €230,000 [about $300,000] to this project and that the digitization of documents archive had taken eight years.”

This is a scary story for a number of reasons. But for me, the primary one is this disturbing course we seem to be laying, as a society, toward the monetization of every moment. It reminds me of the woman who got sued because a video she posted to YouTube of her baby son dancing to the radio included the sound of the radio (and the music playing on it) in the background; the singer of the song felt his copyright was being violated.

I respect that people should be fairly paid for their creative work, but at some point, common sense needs to kick in. These government records that took eight years to compile were paid for already by tax dollars which contributed to the operation of the government. The staff were paid a salary for their work. They were compensated for the public service they performed–and that’s what it was, a public service, the making accessible of these long-forgotten records. To then claim further rights over it is just greedy at that point.

Let me make another analogy: I am a language teacher. I get paid a salary for my work. Done, right? Now, let’s say 20 years from now, one of my students uses the language I taught him to write a best-selling book. Should I be entitled to a cut? Of course not! I did my job, I got my fair compensation, and now my ‘work,’ as it were, is out there in the world to enrich society in its own right.

It is by this same logic that I oppose eternal copyright. Creators do and should have a term where they have exclusive domain over works that they create. (I was paid my salary, as were the French database compilers; authors have their lifetime and then some to exploit their works for profit as they see fit). But then the social contract of the public domain kicks in and works revert to the benefit of public use. Your work was inspired by others, and others should be free to draw the same inspiration from yours. The Taming of the Shrew begets Ten Things I Hate About You. Wuthering Heights begets Wide Sargasso Sea. The Wizard of Oz begets Wicked. Well-loved fairy tales beget the entire Disney empire. It’s always been the way of things.

In the race to monetize every thought, idea and creative application, we are losing sight of that. We are losing sight of the higher goals our artistic system was founded on. Not every ‘right’ has to be protected. Not every ‘use’ has to be paid for. Sometimes, you’ve been paid but just don’t know you have (through taxes, for instance). Sometimes you may be paid more overtly. And other times, you’re just putting something out there into the world to put it out there. We can’t tie ourselves into knots trying to scheme and plan for every eventuality.

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  1. I don’t know if it has changed but in the US databases can be copyrighted as a whole but the material inside is not. The logic behind it is that what is being protected is not the data but the organization of the data in the compilation.
    Here’s a bit of history:

    The european case seems to be based on the older (and in the US, deprecated) “sweat of the brow” 19th century justification.
    So much for “information wants to be free” in europe.

    Now, in the US most government-produced material is supposed to be copyrighted but freely-available by default with only limited exceptions. And the Freedom of Information Act was crafted to allow for challenges to the exceptions.
    (For example, I was recently looking into the copyright status of those gorgeous NASA space images and was pleased to find they are generally released under Creative Commons and pretty any (commercial and non-commercial) use that does not imply Agency endorsement is allowed.)
    The logic there is, in fact, that the taxpayer has already paid for the creation of the content and thus has a proprietary interest in it already.

    Obviously, european law does not recognize those kinds of taxpayer rights.
    Different social contracts.

  2. This is also the subject of much debate, in the US and UK especially, where governments have funded research and then academic journal publishers charge an arm and a leg for access to it. The argument, as here, is that taxpayers have already paid for the work and it should, therefore, be freely available. Here’s a nice explainer:
    However, some government officials are taking the position that charging for access to such information relieves the burden of taxation allowing more research to be funded without higher taxes. Of course one must “follow the money” to determine if, in fact, government coffers are replenished or if private pockets are lined.

  3. Copyright should accrue to works with some originality. Merely aggregating the work of others with no additional original content should not be worthy of copyright. Copyright should not be about how much it cost to do, but rather about promoting new and original works.

  4. “European law does not recognize those kinds of taxpayer rights”

    I do so enjoy when political prejudice against Europe gets in the way of actual facts. While I cannot speak for other European countries, the UK governments (Whitehall and the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) all have robust Freedom of Information acts which places a duty of openness on all government departments, even down to town council level.

    Government publications are released under Crown copyright (allows commercial and non-commercial use with attribution), which has existed since long before the founders of Creative Commons were born. For example, the censuses are published in full online; you can download hundreds of tables of information cut almost any way you could imagine. For free.

    Of course, you are also posting your point on the WorldWideWeb, developed at CERN, which is funded by European taxpayers. Last I checked, the Internet was the single greatest contributor to Open Data and we gave it away to the entire world for free.

  5. The EU database right, introduced in 1996, has very restricted application. It only applies to collections of data where the creator has expended significant resource in obtaining, presenting or verifying the contents. Thus, a database that just happens to “fall out” of work the creator was undertaking anyway (say creating a list of runners in a horse race) does not qualify for database right. Thus EU law is not in fact that much different to US law post Feist case.

    Because Ms Cabot has misunderstood the limits to EU database rights, she has made a mountain out of a molehill. And, as others have pointed out, Freedom of Information legislation – common in many EU countries – is also very relevant.

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