Europe's 'Database Right' Could Throttle Open Data Moves There
from the worse-than-useless dept
One of the more benighted moves by the European Union was the introduction of a special kind of copyright for databases in 1996: not for their contents, but for their compilation. This means that even if the contents are in the public domain, the database may not be. Thanks to a recent court judgment in France, this "database right" now threatens to become a real danger for the burgeoning open data movement in Europe (original in French).
The case concerns the site NotreFamille.com ("Our Family"), which wanted to obtain a copy of various public records held in digital form by the department of Vienne in France. These were things like parish records and census information for the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s -- all clearly in the public domain. But the region refused to make the digital versions of the records available, even though NotreFamille.com offered to pay, on the grounds that it had a separate database right in the digitized collection that enabled it to withhold what would otherwise be released as open data:
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 concerns a normal investment made in the context of the public service mission of the department, but it is sufficient, according to the court, to establish that the department is indeed a "database producer" with an exclusive right on the latter that allows it not to meet the requirement of open data.
That's really bad news, since it effectively guts the requirement to make public information freely available as open data, if held in a database that required some effort to put together, as is usually the case. Moreover, other courts in the European Union may well take a similar view, since the database right is Europe-wide.
This is galling because, unlike most copyright legislation, the database right law was followed up with some research commissioned by the EU in order to examine whether the premise -- that providing an additional intellectual monopoly on the database separate from its contents would stimulate extra investment by European publishers -- was in fact true. The evidence was pretty clear (pdf):
Introduced to stimulate the production of databases in Europe, the new instrument has had no proven impact on the production of databases. Data taken from the GDD (see Section 4.2.3) show that the EU database production in 2004 has fallen back to pre-Directive levels: the number of EU-based database "entries" into the GDD6 was 3095 in 2004 as compared to 3092 in 1998. In 2001, there were 4085 EU-based"entries" while in 2004 there were only 3095.
So this new monopoly turned out to be a complete flop. Worse, as the current case in Vienne shows, it is now starting to have negative effects on other initiatives. Clearly, the time has come to repeal this legislation before it starts to throttle a potentially important new area for growth in Europe.