So fossil websites such as this, this, and this all say their data is basically it is for personal or educational use not-for-profit. Others such as this are creative commons.

From my understanding, on one hand, you can't "copyright" something that is recorded (I read that somewhere). You can't copyright a record of the rainfall statistics, or a collection of phone numbers or addresses in a phone book. I am not sure why exactly, but it sort of makes sense. This data is part of "nature", it is "public". The same with stuff like fossils. They grew out of nature and so are part of the public. But hmm, maybe if they were found on private property (someones private land), maybe then they would be considered not public, not sure. But it makes sense to me that fossils or records of phone numbers aren't copyrightable because they are public / natural data.

Which makes me wonder about "data". If someone has data in a database about natural stuff, like the data at the above fossil sites (images of fossils, or metadata of fossils such as this), then that is still technically something from nature. That is, it is public information / a public resource. But then maybe not. A website that tracks user behavior, that data is private. But that would make sense because the website is like a business with private access and which they own the transactions. So that just gets me more confused.

Also, I know photographers stuff is protected under copyright, even though it is of nature. But maybe there is a boundary between "documentation photos" and "creative photos". This may be why the museums can limit the use of their photos to personal/educational use.

So to summarize, I'm wondering a few things:

  1. If database records (just the metadata part) of natural resources can by copyrighted.
  2. If the use of database records (metadata) of natural resources can be limited in scope by a provider (not sure if this is the same thing as copyright).
  3. Same for the images.

Basically just would like to understand better what data can and can't be copyrighted to prevent certain uses.

A related example is digitizing a public domain book. The book content is public domain. But if someone hosts a digitized book (that is, an image of the content), I wonder if they can say "you can only use this for personal use". Or if they go one step further than just pasting an image online of a public domain work (like archive.org does), and instead post the unicode textual data of the book, if that can be copyrighted (that is, if they can say "you can only use this for personal use"). By textual form I mean, more than just a PDF/image of the book, but something you can actually copy-paste into a Word document or text editor. So we know the content is public domain. Then in the case of archive.org we know the images of the content are public domain. Next to know is if the text that was taken out of the image and put into a text document is public domain. The reason is because technically it does require technology/work to create the artifact at each step ($10,000 digitizing tools to digitize books at scale, or complicated/private OCR technology for getting the text from the images, or the work of manually entering in the text by looking at the image or book directly).


1 Answer 1


Copyright protects literary and artistic expression, not facts.

So, in a database, the structure of the tables, the construction of the queries and the presentation of the user interface are all subject to copyright. The data stored in each record is not subject to copyright if it is a fact but is subject if it is a literary or artistic work. For example, in the IMDb database, the name of a film, the year it was made, the director’s name, the actors’ names etc. are not copyright, however, the star ratings, the reviews, the table structure, the queries and the user interface all are.

For your fossil example, the fossil, where it was found, who found it, when etc. are all non-copyrightable facts. Any photographs of it, drawings of it or scientific writing about it are all copyright because they all involve creative transformation of the fossil.

That creativity is key.

For the book, if the scanning is automated and the text is generated by OCR then there is no new copyright. If a human makes editing or compositional choices, there is.


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