Copyright protection of metadata

Good to know

When we think of copyright protection, books, images and artwork firstly spring to mind. However, in libraries, museums, archives, galleries but also in databases, book and art shops and other places where works are collected, stored, made available or sold, information about these works must be collected so that they can be identified, described and classified (e.g. in library or museum catalogues). Such data is known as metadata. The most well-known example is bibliographical information about a book, i.e. the information which is necessary to describe a book or a source of literature (e.g. publisher, title, publication year, ISBN, edition).

At first glance, it is not obvious that metadata can also be protected by copyright, as it seems that it only includes descriptions, numbers and data. Nevertheless, this has to be considered carefully as metadata can also be protected by copyright. However, it can be difficult to evaluate this aspect in individual cases. According to the copyright definition of a work (Art. 2 para. 1 CopA), we need to ask whether the information in question can be viewed as an intellectual creative effort with an individual character.

That is often not the case for:

  • book or work titles; (a title alone, separated from the work which it describes, is not usually protected by copyright because the combination of several words does not show any individuality),
  • lists and registers (e.g. literature and abbreviation list),
  • descriptions which are merely formal without any creative content (e.g. a description of an image),
  • common or standardised words or terms (e.g. ISBN),
  • dates, editions, publication years.

On the other hand, the following can be protected by copyright:

  • (short) summaries of the content in question, if they themselves can be viewed as an intellectual creative effort with individual character,
  • reviews and content analyses,
  • tables of contents of scientific works when they are the manifestation of a creative effort with individual character,
  • biographical data of artists, authors, etc., if it is collected and listed in a creative manner (e.g. as a short text) and not already in the public domain and put together in common patterns (e.g. chronologically).

But please note: these examples are only designed to promote better understanding. In individual cases, one of the unprotected metadata types listed here can also be protected, and vice versa. Finally, it depends whether you can speak of an intellectual creative or individual effort, or not. Several good examples can be found in the article of Paul Klimpel “Eigentum an Metadaten” (from: Handbuch Kulturportale, Online-Angebote aus Kultur und Wissenschaft, Berlin/Boston 2015)