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Data Module #5: Intellectual Property & Ethics

research data and copyright

Copyright Law and Data

Generally speaking, data are not protected by copyright law in the United States. Data presented in raw form are considered to be the representation of facts. The courts have determined that facts cannot by copyrighted without some incorporation of creative expression .

The 1991 Supreme Court case, Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., determined that a phonebook could not be copyrighted because the alphabetical list of names and numbers is a listing of facts with no creative expression. Therefore, Feist Publications could republish the list without breaking the law. However, creative expressions of facts may be copyright protected. For example, temperature data over time are facts, but an infographic utilizing the data is a creative expression that may be copyrighted.  Similarly, a calendar which indicates the months and dates of a particular year is displaying facts, but the pictures included to decorate the calendar and the unique way in which the calendar is laid out may be copyrighted.

Researcher Rights under U.S. Copyright Law

It is important to understand ethical and legal considerations from both the perspective of a user of existing data and the perspective of a producer of data. 

If you use any data collected by someone else, you need to cite where you got it from. This gives credit to a data creator and allows others to track the data's usage and impact. We will talk more about data citation on the next page of this module.

When you collect your own data, they are yours. No one has the right to take your data unless you have made them available. If you publish, share, or in any other way release your datasets, then others are free to use them as they wish. However, there are some exceptions to this. For example:

Macalester's Policy for
Student Collected Data

In general, you have control over the data you collect for any course-based research project. However, some exceptions may apply. For example, you may be doing the research in collaboration with a faculty member who has their own set of requirements. Also, your course project could be based on work you are doing for an employer (e.g. campus office or department, internship, etc.), and they may have their own restrictions.




  • Collaborative projects: If you are part of a team, and your control over the data was not clearly stated and agreed upon, then you must get permission from those you worked with before sharing data.

  • Work for an employer: Employers differ on how intellectual property rights are granted to their employees. It is common practice for an employer to retain control over data created by employees for work-related projects, though this is not always the case.

Licensing and Data

In addition to copyright, some owners of data place further restrictions on their use in the form of licensing. In order to ethically and legally use these data you must agree to follow the licensing terms. For example, there may be access fees, a requirement of attribution (which you should do anyway), a restriction on commercial use, or a restriction on further sharing. In the latter case, you would likely be allowed to share your unique analysis of the data.

To learn more about data distribution licenses see the following sites: