illustration of balloons representing data in who owns data 9 by heather bussing on may 21, 2014

Ideas and facts are free. You have to actually do something more than just have an idea before there is any ownership or legal protection.

Data is in everything and everywhere. Nobody owns most data. It’s like trying to claim you own atoms or carbon. 

Ownership rights under intellectual property attach only when you transform it into something more than an idea or a fact. Write a blog post, paint a picture, create an app to find the nearest bathroom. I would buy that one in a heartbeat. 

Ideas and facts are free. You have to actually do something more than just have an idea before there is any ownership or legal protection. So if someone saw this blog post and decided to create the bathroom app (if someone hasn’t already), they could. I don’t own the idea. It would be lovely if they made millions and sent me a big bag of money in gratitude. But they don’t have to. If they made it, they own the app. The only thing I own would be a copyright to this blog post.

Also, nobody owns the data —  where bathrooms are located. Those are just facts. So you can sell an easy way to find bathrooms. But you can never own or control the information itself. Then, once you create a map of all the bathrooms in the world, it will be much easier for someone to come along and use your map to make a better version — like an app that also tells you whether there is toilet paper.

Until recently, the something you created with data and ideas had to actually be a physical thing, like a book or a photograph or even a disc. Remember when you went to the store to buy software on a disc in a box? If not, it happened. With things, there are a limited number of them, and someone has control over that number. So the number of books available are how ever many the publisher prints and distributes. 

But data is unlimited and infinite. It makes more data any time you do something with it. 

So data is more like an element than an object. And elements are in the public domain. Nobody can own Hydrogen or Oxygen. 

Facts are data that are also in the public domain. Your name, your work history, your personal timeline are facts. You have some privacy rights and protections from commercial use, but even then, you do not own the facts of your life.

When you put those facts online, you have pretty much surrendered your privacy, and given the website to use the facts about you. But you have not given the website to the right to control or own those facts. That’s because nobody can own those facts. If you can’t even own them, then you can’t give someone else the right to own or control them. It would be like someone claiming you gave them the right to control oxygen. Hey, quit breathing my air!

So websites and companies cannot own most of the data they collect, no matter how much time, energy, and work they put into collecting it. And they don’t own the facts no matter what their terms of service say.

But it doesn’t matter. Ownership is completely irrelevant and a pretty ridiculous concept to apply to data. It’s like putting software on a disc in a box.

Nobody needs to own data because all those facts and bits of information are in the public domain. Anyone is free to use them. And since there are unlimited copies, the whole concept of ownership is completely meaningless.

So why are companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Linkedin scrambling to stake ownership rights in the information they collect? It’s because they don’t want someone else to come along and benefit from the work they have done. 

So what do they own? The own their platforms, the design of their website, and generally how it works. They have IP and copyrights in how information is displayed, and what they create with it. But they don’t own the content created by others, or even the fact that there were 20K clicks or likes on a particular post.

In short, ownership is not a useful concept to apply to data. Ideas and factual information can never be owned.

What’s important is collecting the information, controlling the information, and what you do with it.

So in some ways, this series has been a big shaggy dog story because I didn’t answer the question I set out to answer, and I had to go a lot of places to not get there. But I didn’t see that when I started it, even though I understood many of the individual pieces that went into figuring it out. I had the data, but I had not made all the connections.

Most importantly, I did not understand where there were no connections.

And the more I think about it, the more I believe that it is the connections –what happens between the bits of information that is most valuable. It’s like cartoon strips, where all the action happens in the gutter — the white space between the frames.

It’s like those refrigerator poetry kits with all the little separate words. You don’t get a poem until someone comes along and puts a string of them together in some meaningful way. The words alone don’t make the poem; the connections do.

So here is an excerpt from The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets and writers:

“Every day do something that won’t compute…Give your approval to all you cannot understand…Ask the questions that have no answers.”

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