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Who Owns Data 1- Overview - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

The ownership of data depends on what the data is, how it was generated, what devices were used, where it came from, and whether it is attributable to a person or thing.

by John Sumser and Heather Bussing

We’ve been thinking hard about data. Who owns it? Does ownership matter? If so, why?

The ownership of data depends on what the data is, how it was generated, what devices were used, where it came from, and whether it is attributable to a person or thing. It depends on existing legal ideas, and ones that have not been developed yet.

Courts are backward looking. They only deal with things that already happened. Legislatures try to anticipate laws that are needed, but even they don’t see the need until something happens. Legal answers almost always come after it’s too late. So law is not going to be able to keep up.

But legal analysis is just part of figuring out who has rights to specific data. The context of the data is essential too.

What is Data?

Data is just bits of fact. Without more, it usually doesn’t make sense or even have value.

For example, if you have 3 digits of a phone number, you have data, but you don’t have the phone number. Even if you have all 10 digits, they still have to be in the right order to reach the person you want to call. So you have to know the context of what you are trying to do with those numbers. Then, you’ll also need a phone.

Or maybe you don’t want to call anyone. You just want the phone number to act as designation for other data coming from that source– the people, or house, or computer line attached to that phone number.

The real issues with data are about the meanings ascribed to the data, and the actions people take based on those meanings. Even if the data is right, the meaning can be wrong. If the meaning is wrong, so will the action or result based on the data. Ask a judge, scientist, accountant, or parent how many times they got it wrong based on incomplete data, or because they interpreted correct data the wrong way.

When you talk about Big Data, or data mining and collection, most people get concerned about privacy. It makes people uncomfortable to know that companies or governments are gathering information about them. We have suggested that privacy won’t come from a legal right; privacy will be an app.

The increased availability of data, or even that companies are collecting it, is not the problem. Besides, it’s too late. The problems will come with incomplete or incorrect contexts, mistaken meanings, and harmful actions.

Still, the source of the data and who owns it will be where the battles are. That’s because who has the rights to the data will determines who gets to use it, and how or whether it gets used.

In this series, first we are looking at the legal concepts of ownership, what can and can’t be owned, and how we acquire ownership. Then we’ll look at how ownership applies to data, and what ownership, or data rights, means for its collection, use, and transfer.  Next, we will look at the questions companies should start asking now about what kinds of data are available and what’s coming; whether to collect it; how to manage the rights and interests involved; and important considerations in using and sharing different kinds of data.

It’s an important area to think about and try to get right at the beginning. We invite you to add your questions, insights and thoughts.


Here’s the rest of the series on data ownership

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