picture of old sign saying information with arrow pointing left for Who Owns Data series on HRExaminer.com by Heather Bussing published May 21, 2014

Laws are based on people, places, and things. But you can’t hold a piece of data.


Here is our entire series on the concepts of ownership, data, and who owns data.

1: Overview

 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.

2: What You Can’t Own

Laws are based on people, places, and things. But you can’t hold a piece of data. So applying laws to data, information, and knowledge is difficult and confusing. (More so than applying law to anything.)

Let’s start with what you can’t own. This is important because sometimes data can be owned and sometimes it can’t. And some data will be public and some won’t. And some data may start out owned  but become public.

 3: Intellectual Property

Things you can own are mostly things or land. In law, there is a distinction between real property (land) and personal property (things); each has its own sets of laws.

Then there’s intellectual property, which is neither animal, vegetable, nor mineral. But even intellectual property is based on tangible things, with limited copies, and methods that develop slowly over time. Data, and the things you do with it, are intangible, with potentially infinite copies that change constantly. Trying to attach property rights to a moving target is kind of like trying to own ocean waves. But intellectual property is what we’ve got to work with, so far anyway.

4: Ownership Interests

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

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

5: Privacy

Privacy is very fragile as rights go. (Especially in the US. Privacy rights are much stronger in Europe.)

The most common types of information that are considered private are medical information, personal financial information and information about our sex lives. But even that information is commonly revealed.

6: Data Principles

John Sumser give 44 principles on the nature and value of data. If you don’t have time to read anything else, read this.

7: Linkedin or Fencedin

Terms of Service or User Agreements are a kind of contract that describes who owns what. They almost all say that you own the content you create on the site– they pretty much have to say that  under copyright law. Then they say that you give them a license to do anything they want with that content and anything else they learn about your use of the site.

Also see Why I Killed My Linkedin Account.

8: Trouble With Linkedin’s Lawsuit

In late March, Linkedin amended its lawsuit to name Hiring Solved as the company creating the fake profiles and taking the information. Linkedin also sent out a cease and desist letter to at least one other company, Sell Hack.

Linkedin is trying to make money from public information by controlling how people use their site. It’s the trouble with running what is basically a phonebook where people get to advertise themselves for free.

Linkedin’s legal position also has some problems.

9: Why Ownership Doesn’t Matter

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. But that is simply the cost of being the first.