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There are some datasets (bioinformatics, agriculture, weather, etc.) that state that they can only be used for non-commercial purposes. This would mean a corporation cannot take that dataset and use it in some way to make money. However, the phrase "for non-commercial use only" seems to be vague when it comes to monetary prizes (in the thousands of US dollars) from research competitions.

Can datasets that have this "for non-commercial use only" requirement be used in academic research that could possibly win money at a competition?

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Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not a legal advice.

In general, this depends on at least the following factors:

  • particular text of the formal license under which the dataset is provided
  • the laws of the country where the parties (licensor and licensee) reside
  • definitions that are used to determine whether the activity is considered to be commercial or non-commercial if the actual license text is unclear about it
  • status of the organization where the research is conducted

However, usually, the commercial purpose has the connotation of direct income generated from the goods or services produced with the help of the licensed content. In the case of the research work that happen to win a certain competition, I would argue that would not be considered a direct income. Thus, should constitute non-commercial use.

From the Creative Commons study on non-commercial use, the following definition of the commercial use is very common:

… in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.

I would argue that no academic research has the primary goal of monetary compensation. Winning in the competition for an academic researcher usually is "collateral damage".


To reiterate,

  1. The definition of commercial and non-commercial use is license-specific; therefore, without the text of the license, it is impossible to determine whether a certain way of using the licensed content is legal or not.

  2. If in doubt, consult a lawyer or use the legal services that most educational institutions provide.

  3. The use for academic research that might/did win a competition is very likely to be within the non-commercial use clause of the license.

  • I would not be so sure about your "primary goal" distinction. Wikipedia does not accept material from non-commercial-use licenses, for instance, because the Wikimedia Foundation sells T-shirts, CD copies of Wikipedia etc. even though that is a small part of what they do. Maybe there is a distinction based on knowledge timing (i.e. if you use the NC dataset before knowing you will enter a competition you are off the hook) but it looks shaky at best (how would you prove that?). – UJM Aug 10 '20 at 7:25

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