Copyright is an internationally recognised form of intellectual property right, which arises automatically as a result of original work such as research. It does not need to be registered to apply to a piece of work.

Copyrighted output from research could include spreadsheets (and other forms of originally selected and organised data), publications, reports and computer programs. Copyright will not cover the underlying facts, ideas or concepts, but only the particular way in which they have been expressed. The right will lie with the author of the work, or with their relevant institution—different universities will have different policies on intellectual property.

A copyrighted work cannot usually be published, reproduced, adapted or translated without the owner’s permission.

Key copyright considerations for researchers

Whether you want to reuse someone else's data or if you are planning to archive and share your own, you should ask yourself who the copyright holder of the datasets is (also see 'Licensing your data'). Are you allowed to use them and in what way? Are you allowed to archive and publish them in a data repository? How do you answer the question who the copyright holder of a dataset is? Is it you, your employer, the data archive, fellow researchers? The answer depends on multiple factors, such as who had input into creating the research data, whether data were used from other datasets, and what the researcher’s contract of employment stipulates.

In the accordion key copyright considerations for researchers are highlighted:

  • In two cases multiple copyright holders exist and joint ownership is implied:

    • Datasets created by multiple researchers
      When data is collected, and created by multiple researchers, then multiple researchers may be listed as joint copyright holders, with all gaining and retaining intellectual property rights. Prior to archiving it is important to ensure permission for depositing data is given by all copyright holders as well as participants.
    • Derived datasets
      The key issue with derived data is the matter of copyright ownership. Because the resulting data is derived from previously created data the permission of the original copyright holder should be sought before the data is deposited with a repository. The best practice is for researchers to try to negotiate the sharing of derived data with the data suppliers at the time of acquisition or purchase. If permission is granted then they should also be listed as a joint copyright owner.
  • Database rights acknowledge the investment made by a researcher in developing a database, even in cases where this does not involve a creative aspect. The organisation, structuring of a database and the selecting of which data to include in the database are all decisions which can receive protection through copyright legislation. If you want to use (large parts of) a database you should always ask the permission of the database creator.

  • Depending on the employer you might have a stipulation in your contract that any works which are created during employment are the intellectual property of the employer. But, even where contracts of employment make this statement we typically find that the employer is happy for the researcher to be listed as the copyright holder or for the employer and employee to be listed as a joint holder.

  • Most repositories operate a system of not acquiring any copyright ownership in the data*. Before you deposit your data the repository will need to be informed – and confirm – who the copyright owner is.

    What we typically see in practice is that the researcher who authors (creates) the work is listed as the copyright owner for the dataset when it is deposited in a repository. Repositories act merely as a facilitator of access to the data, with some guaranteeing to curate and provide permanent access to the data.

    * However, this can differ from country-to-country and archive-to-archive. Researchers should therefore clarify with the repository copyright rules before depositing the data, and ideally before conducting research, so that consent forms and information sheets can inform participants accurately of who will own – and have copyright of – the data once the research project has commenced.

Case studies

In the case studies in the tabs, you can identify the potential copyright issues and state how you would address these in practice.

Case Study 1 – Copyright of Archived Data

A researcher uses International Social Survey Programme (ISSP, n.d.) data obtained from ZACAT/GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Germany. These data are freely available to registered users. The researcher incorporates some of the ISSP data within a database containing his own research data. Can this database be deposited with another archive?

  • Although the ISSP data are available for free to all researchers, this does not mean that the data can be published in another archive and made available to others. The data can be incorporated into a database and used for personal analysis. But, before this dataset can be deposited with another archive, permission must be sought from the owner of the original data.

Case Study 2 – Copyright of Data in the Public Domain

A researcher studies how health issues around obesity are reported in the media in the last 10 years. Freely available newspaper websites and library sources are used to obtain articles on this topic. Articles or excerpts are copied into a database and coded according to various criteria for content analysis. (i) Can the researcher use such public data without breaching copyright? (ii) Can the database be archived and shared with other researchers?

  • Even though the articles are publicly available, they are still under copyright. Whilst such information can be used for personal research purposes ( the UK this would be under the broad exemption of ‘fair dealing’), the articles cannot be archived, unless permission is obtained from the newspapers; otherwise this would breach copyright.

Case Study 3 – Copyright of Survey Questions

A researcher wishes to reuse a set of questions from an existing survey questionnaire, to compare results between the newly proposed survey and the original.

  • The survey questions and instruments will be copyright protected, with copyright residing with the organisation who commissioned, designed or conducted the survey (unless the original creator/owner transfers all ownership rights). The researcher needs to contact the copyright holder directly for permission to reproduce the questionnaire text for any new use. Some questionnaires will contain measurement scales, batteries of questions or classifications. These instruments are again copyrighted. Therefore, to reproduce them the researcher will need permission.

Case Study 4 – Copyright of Interviews with Stay-at-Home Parents

A researcher interviews various stay-at-home parents about their careers and produces audio recordings and near verbatim transcripts herself. The researcher analyses this material and offers it to a data archive. The researcher did not get signed copyright transfers for the interviewees’ words. What are the rights issues surrounding this offer of data?

  • In this case, the stay-at-home parents hold copyright in their own recorded words, whilst the researcher holds copyright over the transcribed interviews. Quoting large extracts of the data, either in publications or by archiving the transcripts, would breach the copyright of the interviewees in their recorded words. If the researcher wants to publish large extracts of data, or archive the transcripts, they need to request permission to do so from the interviewees or request that the interviewee transfers the copyright of the interview content to the researcher, which could be achieved through the use of a Recording Agreement.