Many public scientific datasets are accompanied by a license, for example variations of Creative Commons are used quite often. However, in many cases public academic datasets lack any licensing information. Here are two examples:

At PhosphoSite we find it is "created by Cell Signaling Technology is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License", so permissions of usage are clear from the license.

Here is an other dataset where we don't see anything about licensing, not even a statement that the data is free to use for academic purposes. It only states that "can be downloaded", but what can I do after downloading? Can I redistribute it, modify it, sell it? From the context I suppose they intended their data for public use, they are happy if more people use it so they get more credits and citations. But this is just an assumption.

The copyright holder is clear in both cases, the permissions are missing in the second case.

I am wondering, if I write a software using this data, or I construct a more complex dataset including this data, what solutions are legally correct:

1: The software downloads the dataset at each user's own machine from the original source and processes it. However this is not always possible or not easy to implement.

2: Distribute a copy of the original dataset, or a modified version, with attribution to the original source. This is more problematic, I think, but I am not expert in law.

Asking for permission is an obvious solution, but in case of dozens of datasets, it is a tedious and long process to contact all the copyright holders, and wait for their responses. Also, some datasets are supplements of published papers. In this case, if the journal has a license, e.g. Nucleic Acids Research is published under Creative Commons, is this valid for these datasets?

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    In most jurisdictions, the default assumption is that you are not allowed to do anything beside looking at the data you downloaded for yourself, and maybe distribute severely aggregated information about it (e.g. usually no law is violated by indicating the amount of data, or a brief summary of what the data is about). Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 22:08
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    Your second link is now broken. Is this Wayback Machine capture accurate?
    – E.P.
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 10:24

3 Answers 3


This may vary by country, but in the US at least, the default terms (if no alternative is specified) are "all rights reserved", which means that you are not allowed to reproduce the work (the dataset), prepare derivative works from it, sell/rent/lease it, or publicly perform or display it. In particular, redistributing it to others is not allowed. In practice, the authors may be fine with it, but legally speaking, you're not allowed to redistribute the dataset in the form it was published in, without having explicit permission (which could be provided by a Creative Commons license, for example).

If you wanted to reproduce the dataset in a different form that conveys the same information, that may or may not be allowed. It would be up to a court to decide whether that counts as a derivative work or just a use of the underlying ideas, and a copyright lawyer could advise you better on whether your desired use is legally acceptable.

You are allowed to read the published dataset and use the ideas contained within it (i.e. the data) to draw conclusions. Copyright law does not allow for the restriction of those rights. I think doing an analysis on the data and publishing the results of that analysis (but not the data itself), as you would do in the process of writing a paper, is generally considered to be fine.

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    The question seems to be mainly about redistributing the data.
    – ff524
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 6:51
  • I edited the answer to emphasize that.
    – David Z
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 6:56
  • In the US at least, there generally isn't an inherent copyright in data. Raw data (facts about the world) generally don't meet the bar for creative or expressive work required for copyright protection, though if it has been actively curated then the curation and presentation may be eligible. You obviously need to talk to a lawyer (or, say, a qualified librarian) before redistributing the data, but the base assumption of all-rights-reserved isn't the same for data as for creative works.
    – E.P.
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 10:26
  • @E.P. Sure; when I talk about copyright, I mean for the data set itself as a creative work, not the data (facts) contained within it.
    – David Z
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 10:34
  • That's not how the answer reads, though.
    – E.P.
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 10:41

Also, talking from the point of view of the US. Not quite familiar with other countries.

Generally, data are not covered by copyright, they are not creative expression. You cannot copyright the fact that the temperature in this room at this moment is 32. It is just a fact, it is not creative. Yes, the creation of datasets can take a lot of work, but copyright does not protect hard work, it protects creative expression. In some cases, datasets can be creative. For example, if your research data is photographs, these photographs will probably be covered by copyright. Or if you compile data in an original creative way, this could be copyrighted. Still, what copyright would protect is the compilation strategy, not the data itself.

Scientists and data creators have other options to protect their datasets that are not copyright law. I believe that you can patent datasets, for example.

If a dataset is publicly available and it contains just facts and not creative work, then it is in the public domain. You can redistribute and make derivatives as you like. You are not legally obliged to give attribution. However, in the academic world you are expected to give attribution, it does not matter if the dataset is in the public domain. If you don't give attribution, using the dataset may be considered plagiarism. Plagiarism is research misconduct, and you may get in trouble.

This is a good question to ask to a librarian in an academic library. Many of them have data management specialists or copyright specialists that will know how to answer these questions.


Copyright law says that the creator of a work is allowed to retain all rights of use of said work, period. Unless the owner of the copyright explicitly allows some use (e.g., reading, copying, translating, ...) nobody is allowed to do so. The fancy, legalese word for "allowing" is license. There are some subtleties with data collections, like what you describe, but as far as this non-lawyer understands, nothing that makes a difference here.

If the data is "supporting data for a published paper", the publisher presumably has secured copyright (or some form of license) on the paper itself to publish it, they probably did not secure rights on the supporting data.

So, in short: they (implicitly) give the permission to download, but nothing else. Yes, less than useful. Sure, it is extremely unlikely that they'll turn around and sue you for copyright violation for reading the data or doing some other personal use of it. But in theory, they could. What the court would make of such a suit is anybody's guess.

Unless you get a clear statement from the collector of the data, you aren't allowed to use it. You must contact the owners of data and ask for permission.

You might want to look at some data collection licenses, like the Open Data Commons Open Database License . Please note that licenses like the Creative Commons set or open source licenses are a poor fit for data. Check them out, and suggest the data owners to explicitly license their data under a permissive licence.

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    No, copyright law only protects certain rights relating to distribution. You can't use copyright law to prevent someone from reading something or using the ideas contained therein. (At least in the US, but if it works the way you're saying in some other country, I think this answer needs an identification of which country that is.)
    – David Z
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 6:31
  • If I don't give you a copy to read, you aren't allowed to rummage in my stuff to read it.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 13:40
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    Indeed, but the reason for that is the rummaging. That's the illegal part. Not the reading itself. Do keep in mind that when I talk about reading something, I'm talking about content you already have in your possession. Obtaining the content is not part of (though is a prerequisite to) reading it.
    – David Z
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 13:47
  • @DavidZ without distribution you don't get it in the first place.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 17:35
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    yes, I know. My point is that copyright law can make it illegal to give someone a copy of a work, but it cannot make it additionally illegal for that person to read the copy once they already have it.
    – David Z
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 18:22

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