UK Court Says Information Stored Electronically Is Not 'Property'
from the for-intellectual-property-read-intellectual-monopoly dept
More and more of our activities take place in the digital rather than analog realm. But what exactly is the legal status of that digital stuff as it flows around the Internet, or sits inside databases? A recent judgment in the UK provides important guidance:
Information stored electronically does not constitute property which someone can exercise possession of, judges in the UK have ruled.
The Court of Appeal rejected arguments to the contrary and refused to interpret existing laws in a manner which would, it admitted, “have the beneficial effect of extending the protection of property rights in a way that would take account of recent technological developments”.
The judges said that whilst it is possible to exert control over electronic information it is not possible to gain possession of it. The distinction was drawn in a case concerning a dispute between a publisher and an IT supplier.
The details of that case can be read in the useful post on Out-law.com quoted above. The basic facts are as follows. The publisher Datateam Business Media Limited wanted to outsource the management of its subscriber database. The company Your Response Ltd took on the job, but the publisher became dissatisfied with its services, and sought to terminate the contract. In the following dispute over the payment of fees, Your Response Ltd claimed possession of the database — hence the court case. The analysis of one of the judges is interesting:
“An electronic database consists of structured information,” Lord Justice Floyd said. “Although information may give rise to intellectual property rights, such as database right and copyright, the law has been reluctant to treat information itself as property. When information is created and recorded there are sharp distinctions between the information itself, the physical medium on which the information is recorded and the rights to which the information gives rise. Whilst the physical medium and the rights are treated as property, the information itself has never been.”
That’s an important statement that touches on many aspects of the online world, not least digital copyright. It confirms that the property of “intellectual property” is of monopoly rights, not of the information in the creative work. And since that information cannot be possessed, it therefore cannot be stolen, despite what copyright maximalists would have us believe.