Make your data count

Rights and licensing

Intellectual property (IP) is a complex area, especially when applied to data. Datasets may have multiple sources, meaning there are multiple rights holders. In some cases, multiple types of right may apply to the same database. Below are a few key areas to consider.

  • IP and the University of Oxford

    • The University generally asserts ownership of intellectual property devised, made, or created by staff of the University in the course of their employment, or by student members in the course of – or incidentally to – their studies. This is set out in Statute XVI, which covers intellectual property.
    • Although there are certain exemptions, this will generally include ownership of intellectual property rights in data generated in the course of University research, including research funded by external sponsors such as the Research Councils.
    • The University does not assert rights of ownership in books, articles, plays, lyrics, scores, lectures or other artistic works unless it has specifically commissioned those items.
      • However, any generic statement in a grant application or data management plan (when it is still unclear what sort of intellectual property will be generated), should probably make it clear that IP rights in data generated in the course of research usually vest in the University.
  • What rights might there be in research data?

    Works such as texts, images, music, sound recordings and databases have associated legal rights. Only the owner of a work has, by default, the rights to copy, adapt or distribute that work. For the vast majority of datasets, the most relevant rights will be copyright and database rights.

    What is copyright?

    Copyright applies to textual works, images, music and audio/video recordings that are original (originality in this context meaning not copied from another source, and requiring skill and judgement to produce). If your research data includes items like photos, recordings or texts of more than a sentence or two, they are very likely to be protected by copyright. Copyright can also exist at more abstract levels, such as in the selection of elements in a dataset, or the structure in which the elements are arranged, provided again that selection or structure is original.

    Copyright expires after a fixed period (in the UK, usually 70 years after the death of the creator). Works on which copyright has expired are said to be in the public domain, and can be used freely.

    What are database rights?

    In the EU, there is another set of rights that protect some databases and datasets. These ‘database rights’ do not require the datasets they protect to be original in the same way that copyright does. In order to be protected, a database only needs to have required significant investment of time or money (or both) to produce. It is possible for a single database to contain both database rights and copyright; for example an exhaustive collection of a specific kind of text could be a database (protected by database rights) of copyright-protected works.

  • IP and collaboration

    • In some cases, academic or commercial collaborators may have intellectual property rights in research outputs.  Normally there are consortium agreements or legal contracts associated with such collaborations.
      • Further information about IP in the context of agreements is available from the Research Services IP pages
      • You can also contact the IP team within Research Services for advice.
    • Research Services have also prepared a range of template data sharing and data access agreements (suitable for research from all four academic divisions).
      • While these agreements are designed to address key issues, they will need to be tailored to the specific needs of a particular project. Research Services can advise on this, and also offer to check drafts as they are prepared before producing a final signature-ready copy.
      • For further information, please contact Research Services direct:
  • IP and data sharing

    • As a researcher, you should clarify ownership of and rights relating to research data before a project starts. Data which include multiple copyright layers or rights owners cannot be shared unless permission for data sharing has been given by all copyright/rights holders.
    • When an article is published, the publisher may impose restrictions on making it and the underlying data freely available through other channels. The extent of such restrictions will generally depend on what was agreed between the publisher and the author(s) at the time the article was accepted for publication.
      • The SHERPA/RoMEO service (based at the University of Nottingham) lists publishers and their associated copyright agreements. Use RoMEO to search for a publisher, or a particular journal, to see which rights are assigned to publishers and which are retained by the author.
    • If you are sharing your data, providing clear guidance on what reusers can do with it helps disentangle some of the complexities and ambiguities surrounding the rights associated with that data.
      • One way of clarifying the terms of use is to license your data – see below for more details.
  • Licensing your data

    A licence clarifies the terms of use for your data – disentangling what could otherwise be quite a complicated default legal position.

    • A licence is a formal statement issued by the holder of the rights to a particular work (e.g. a database), giving permission to use the work in certain specified ways.
      • You might, for example, specify that if the data is reused, you must be cited as the creator – or that the data may be used for research and educational purposes, but not in commercial contexts.
      • It is still possible for potential reusers to approach you and seek specific permission to use the data for other purposes or in other ways.
    • Licences for data fall into two broad categories:
      • Traditional data sharing or collaboration agreements, which grant rights only to specific individuals or entities.
      • ‘Open’ licenses, which grant rights to anyone, often subject to certain minimal conditions like attribution of the data’s owner.
    • Commonly used open licences for data include Creative Commons and Open Data Commons licences.
    • Alternatively, if you control all rights to your dataset, and wish to make it available for others to use without any restrictions at all, you might consider using a Creative Commons Open Data CC Zero public domain dedication and waiver.
    • The DCC’s guide How to License Research Data provides a useful overview.

Tools, resources, and training

How to License Research Data

Selecting and applying the most suitable licences for research data – a DCC guide.
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FAIR Sharing and Access

An interactive training module in the MANTRA course, covering benefits and challenges of data sharing.
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IT Services Research Support

Advice and support for all technical aspects of the research process, including data management.
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Data Sharing Agreements

The University of Oxford’s Research Services can provide template agreements for data sharing.
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Rights Relating to Research Data

Good practice advice from the UK Data Service, covering copyright (and other IP rights) and data sharing.
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Open Data Commons

Licences and other legal tools for making data openly available for reuse.
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Creative Commons

Licences which can be used when sharing data for reuse by other researchers.
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