W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > semantic-web@w3.org > May 2013

Re: There's No Money in Linked Data

From: Denny Vrandečić <denny.vrandecic@wikimedia.de>
Date: Sat, 18 May 2013 11:06:44 +0200
Message-ID: <CANnnRRvuM=r_ewL9aO_1WmQcio_W92mvZW9Gv=wJqfkRnmUKJg@mail.gmail.com>
To: Pascal Hitzler <pascal.hitzler@wright.edu>
Cc: SW-forum <semantic-web@w3.org>

tl;dr - If you publish data, attach the CC0 license to it, but that’s
basically just advertising - don’t think it means anything.

If you use data, you do not have to care much about the data license.

If you republish data, it’s a bit more complicated, but not as horrible as
you might think.

Imagine a student reading a CC-BY-SA published textbook on compilers. Next
thing, based on that knowledge, he writes a parser and publishes the binary
on the Web. Does he have to acknowledge the textbook? Does he have to
publish his code under the same license?

Imagine a designer creating an image with GIMP, a fantastic open source
image processing tool, published under the GPL. Or a developer writing his
code in Eclipse. Or a website being served from a Linux box. What legal
implications does it have for the license of the image? For the source
code? For the served page?

Imagine a search engine that changes its background color depending on the
type of thing you are searching for. You enter a city - it turns gray. You
enter a person - red for females, blue for males, and purple for others.
You enter a company - yellow. And so on. Let us assume that the search
engine does that by figuring out the thing you are searching for and then
asking DBpedia for its type. Since DBpedia is licensed under CC-BY-SA, does
this mean we have to put a link on the search result acknowledging DBpedia?
Does this mean we have to publish our search index under CC-BY-SA as well?

Imagine Red Cross publishing pages about the countries they work in, and
adding the population data to each of them from Freebase, the location from
OpenStreetMaps, the local name of the country from GeoNames, and the
capital from DBpedia. What amount of legal disclaimer would need to be
displayed on the page? Maybe some of the data items derive from another
source? What about their licenses? What about this license stacking effect?

There are some rather vague ideas floating about how the whole intellectual
property law apparatus works for data. I have mulled over this for a long
time, and read more laws and court cases than I care to admit. I want to
try to make a few points in the following.

Let’s start with the basics. What laws do actually apply?

Copyright law protects the expression, not the idea - the form, not the
content. You can watch the newest Iron Man movie, and you are legally
allowed to annoy your friends with retellings of the movie as often as you
want. But you are not allowed to film it with your phone camera in the
theater and display it to your friends. If you learn something from a
textbook, you are free to write your own textbook, adding other knowledge
you have acquired, possibly from other textbooks and publications. Only if
you start copying the original texts to closely, you will get into legal

Almost all of the above mentioned licenses - all Creative Commons licenses
currently available, as well as the GFDL or the GPL - are based on
copyright laws. The GPL has started, as Stallmann admits, as a legal hack
of copyright law. This makes a lot of sense, since these licenses have not
meant to cover data, but expressions: texts, music, and the like. This
means, these licenses cannot extend beyond that. They only cover the
expression. They cover the actual RDF/XML file, the string of characters.
Not the content. Not the graph.

(Note that ODBL and the current draft of the upcoming fourth revision of CC
go beyond copyright and include database right where applicable, i.e.
within the legislation of the EU. This extension is irrelevant for the US.)

This means that such licenses, like GFDL for data, have no restricting
effect if you want to use the data. Only if you want to republish the data
files more or less verbatim (in whole or partially, standalone or as part
of a bigger project), you need to think about the original license. Merely
including the data (not the files!) has no effect stemming from copyright.

This also makes intuitively sense: if someone takes Wikipedia and counts
the distribution of words and letters in Wikipedia, the subsequent
publication of the results is not restricted by the original license
Wikipedia was published. If someone takes the whole Web, and creates a
graph of all links on the Web, and starts to apply some algorithms on this
graph, the subsequent usage of the results of these algorithms are not
subject to any of the licenses of the original texts published on the Web.
Copyright simply does not extend this far. And that is good.

So much to copyright. Unfortunately, the European Union went a step
further. They recognized that copyright does not apply to databases. They
also recognized that the EU was not doing well in their competition against
the US, with regards to publishing databases. So they decided to level the
field by introducing a completely new right, the database right. This
protects the effort that goes into creating databases - basically their
schema (which columns should I have) and the coverage (which rows do I have
in my database). Ten years later the EU made an evaluation of the
effectiveness of the laws, and came to some interesting conclusions: first,
technically the newly database rights made things more complicated; second,
most publishers obviously do not understand it, but are happy with what
they think it means (which usually contradicts with what it actually
means); and third, it completely failed in its goal to advance the database
publishing sector. The report offers options to drop the whole database
rights thing again, but so far nothing has happened.

Also, this novel database right got a few major blows by the European Court
of Justice, where it clearly stated that the right does not cover the
creation of the database, merely the effort put into obtaining, selecting,
and cleaning a database. This means, e.g. that the publication of match
dates and fixtures by FIFA can not be protected under the database right.
On the other hand, if an external Website keeps statistics of all FIFA
player, how much their cost, where they currently are, etc., then their
database as a whole could be protected.

But to make it clear: the database right does not apply to single data
items in the database: should I keep a database of all cities in the UK and
their populations, and if someone asks for the population of Oxford from my
database, the database rights do not prevent them from republishing and
using that data item as they like. Eurostat cannot sue you if you tell
someone the population of France.

To summarize on database rights: the EU, and only the EU, have introduced
in 1996 the so called database rights. They are independent of copyright,
and cover a database as a whole in certain circumstances. If you are in the
EU, and want to use the data, database right does not restrict you. It only
restricts you from republishing the database as a whole or in relevant

Besides the legal foundations of the data licenses, one also has to
consider that copyright law refers dominantly to the right to copy the
data, not to use it: if you want to count how often certain explicit words
are uttered in a movie like Pulp Fiction, you are free to do so. If you
want to count and compare the death count in certain books and movies
(like, Rambo, War and Peace, and the Bible - the results might surprise
you), you are free to do so. You are free to publish the results, and you
are even more free to use them internally in your organization.

Having said that, I still recommend to add the CC0 license to a dataset
when you publish it. I grudge every time I do it, but it still makes sense.
Not because I believe that it means much: as said, the data in it is free
anyway. But because a lot of other people believe that it means a lot. They
might believe that if they integrate a point of data from a CC-BY-SA
licensed dataset in their own dataset, they have to publish it under
CC-BY-SA as well. They might believe that mixing a CC-BY-SA dataset with an
ODBL dataset and displaying the results is legally impossible. Maybe they
don’t even believe it, but they are required to ask their lawyers, and
their lawyers will prefer to play it safe for their clients (it is their
job!) and advise them accordingly. And for all of these people, the CC0
license is an item of assurance. So if you want your dataset to be usable
by them, just add a CC0 license to it. And grudge about it.

There is a completely independent aspect of why it could make sense to cite
your data sources, which is trust and provenance. Even if a dataset is not
published under a CC-BY-like license, meaning that it requires attribution,
it often makes sense to keep the provenance and attribution intact - simply
because the user of your data might ask for the source themselves, and
might want to check on their credibility. But attribution for increasing
your credibility is something entirely different than attribution because
you think you are legally obliged due to the used data.

If I were an organization or individual with sufficient financial backup, I
would even offer to pick up your legal battles if a data publisher ever
sues you for using their data (not for republishing it verbatim, though). I
hope that maybe an organization or individual will step up at some point to
do so, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it. Both the US Supreme Court and
the European Court of Justice have repeatedly decided in favour of the
freedom of data, be it the results of games, be it telephone numbers, be it
horse racing fixtures.

So, as paradoxical as it sounds: Data is free. Free the data!

There is a battle over minds going on. The one side fights for the
establishment and extension of intellectual property rights. In the last
decades, even years, they have achieved some considerable victories.
Copyright law, as it was introduced in the United States, was meant for 14
years, and had to be explicitly stated. Today it holds not only for the
lifetime of the creator, but also an additional 70 years (to incentivize
the creator to produce more, because an author would be much less motivated
to write if they knew that half a century after their death their highly
beloved publisher wouldn’t make profit out of their work anymore). Today,
copyright applies automatically, without any registration or statement.
There is no need to put the little c in a circle anywhere. It is there,
automatically, everywhere.

The extension from works to content, from expression to ideas, is another
dimension, this time in scope instead of time, in the continuous struggle
to extend and expand intellectual property rights. It is not just a battle
over the laws, but also, and more importantly, over our believes and minds,
to make us more accepting towards the notion that ideas and knowledge
belong to companies and individuals, and are not part of our commons.

Every time data is published under a restrictive license, “they” have
managed to conquer another strategic piece of territory. Restrictive in
this case includes CC-BY, CC-BY-SA, CC-BY-NC, GFDL, ODBL, and (god forbid!)
CC-BY-SA-NC-ND, and many other such licenses.

Every time you wonder what license some data has that you want to use, or
whether you need to ask the data publisher if you can use it, “they” have
won another battle.

Every time you integrate two data sources and want to publish the results,
and start to wonder how to fulfill your legal obligation towards the
original dataset publishers, “they” laugh and welcome you as a member of
their fifth column.

Let them win, and some day you will be sued for mentioning a number.


I am not linking to the obvious texts, which are the actual laws. Read
them. They are not as impenetrable as you think. I mean, heck, if you can
make sense of an RDF/XML file, you shouldn’t be scared of some legal text.

Evaluation of the European Commission on the effect of database rights


US Supreme Court, Baker v. Selden - on the extent of copyright with regards
to the expression, not the content


Sorry for the far too long reply. It is not meant as a critical reply to
Pascal and his colleagues’ text, but rather something that has been
brooding in me for a while. This text triggered me to write it down, and in
the framework of their text I would read it as a contribution to point 5 of
their way forward.

This text was written by me on a Saturday morning, as a completely personal
opinion. It does not represent the official point of view of any current,
former, or future employer, nor of any project I ever was, am, or will be
affiliated with or am thought to be affiliated with.

Received on Saturday, 18 May 2013 09:07:36 UTC

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