Who Owns Data 4: Ownership Interests - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

When someone gives you something, you don’t have to give anything back.

We’re exploring who owns data. So far, we’ve looked at what is data, things you cannot own, and intellectual property. Today, we look at how owning something is different from just having a right to use it.

Ways to Own Something.

There are three main ways to acquire ownership, and each has it’s own rules.

Gifts When someone gives you something, you don’t have to give anything back. It’s a present. And the person who gave it has no legal right to get it back. Gifts are irrevocable. Then, the person who received the gift has an absolute right to do whatever she wants with it, including giving it away, selling it, destroying it or shoving it back in the box and putting it the garage.  While most people don’t see it that way (especially when particularly ugly sweaters are involved) these are the legal rules, not the cultural or good manners rules. In order to be a gift, the person giving it generally has to know what they’re giving and intend for it to be a present. In other words, you can’t take a gift or give one by mistake.

Exchange for Value.  This can be a sale or a trade, but both sides must get something of value. The legal term for value is “consideration.”  All contracts that transfer ownership or rights to use something owned by someone else are exchanges for value– in order to be a valid contract, there must be “consideration.”

Creation. You generally own the things you create  along with your work to create them. That’s why you can exchange your work for pay, or sell the things you create. This gets complex fast when there are multiple people bringing things and work to create something. So they usually make an agreement or exchange for value about who owns the end result. This also overlaps with both intellectual property– remember you can’t own ideas– and things you can’t own, like people, energy, language and many of the raw ingredients that go into something that can be owned later.

Contract Rights That Are Not Ownership

There are also contractual rights that affect an owner’s rights to sell or use something, but they are not title or ownership.

Liens and Security Interests. Liens and security interests arise when a lender loans money to buy something like cars, or houses, or companies. But the lender does not own the thing it made the loan for. Instead, has contractual rights if the buyer doesn’t pay, usually to take possession and sell the thing. But a lien is not ownership.

Options Options also aren’t ownership. They are a contractual right to own something in the future if certain conditions happen and payments are made.

Licenses.  A license is a right to use someone else’s stuff. The owner grants the user a legal right to use something, but keeps the ownership. So when you “buy” software or a song on itunes, you don’t really own it. You just have a right to use it according to the terms and conditions of the license.

Licenses are really flexible and are the concept that gets applied to digital information and property most often.

Shared Ownership.  Sometimes more than one person owns something together. There are lots of different ways to divide ownership. For example, corporations divide the ownership of the company into shares of stock. But if you own 10% of a company, you buy and sell the stock, not 10% of the company’s building and assets and employees. With most types of shared ownership, there is a way to convert one person’s ownership into money, so that the ownership is sold for cash and the business continues. But sometimes, with land or small partnerships, one owner can force the sale of then entire thing even if the other owners don’t want to sell.

Next, we’ll look at who owns data (or not) and some ways to think about the rights involved.

Here’s the rest of the series on data ownership