• Copyright In Database Software Program Does Not Protect Public-Record Data
  • February 20, 2004 | Author: Lindsay M. Schoen
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - New York Office
  • The owner of a copyright in a computer database program that organizes public-record data cannot prevent licensees or third parties from accessing and using the data, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently ruled.

    At issue in Assessment Tech. of Wisconsin LLC v. WIREdata Inc. was whether WIREdata could access real estate tax assessment data that several Wisconsin municipalities had compiled and entered into a database application owned by Assessment Technologies ("AT"). AT's program compiles, organizes and displays this data. The municipalities refused to disclose the public-record data to WIREdata because of concerns about infringing AT's copyright in the computer program. WIREdata filed state-court lawsuits to force the municipalities to divulge the data. AT then filed the instant suit in federal trial court in Milwaukee to prevent the disclosure.

    The federal trial court issued a preliminary injunction against the data's disclosure on the basis of AT's copyright infringement claim. AT's victory was short lived, however, as the Seventh Circuit vacated the injunction and further ordered the lower court to dismiss the copyright infringement claim.

    The Seventh Circuit analyzed how copyright law applies to both the database and the data. Copyright law protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Copyright law thus protects the creative arrangement of facts, but not the facts themselves. The Court acknowledged that AT's computer program was protected by copyright law. It observed, however, that WIREdata was interested in the raw data stored in the program, and not the program itself.

    The Court noted that the real estate tax assessment data was not created or gathered by AT and found that the raw data, mere facts, were beyond the scope of AT's copyright. Therefore, the extraction of the data from the program would not infringe AT's copyright in the program.

    The Seventh Circuit further noted that even if the data were so entwined with the program that a person or entity wanting to extract the data would need to copy the program in the process, such copying would not violate AT's copyright, because the only purpose of the copying would be to extract the data, not to sell unauthorized copies of the program.

    The Assessment Tech. decision reminds copyright owners of the limits to the protections afforded by copyright law. Copyright owners should never assume that a copyright in a database or other compilation can be used to prevent others from accessing the data contained therein. The data itself must be separately copyrightable to be protected.