So who owns data?

Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) can help us to protect (“own”) new technology and innovation. It’s not really ownership in the same way as ownership of physical goods, but IPRs do give their holders exclusive rights.

All fine and dandy, but there’s also tremendous value in data. So what about data? Who owns them? Is it actually possible to “own” data?

This is becoming ever more important. There are a number of recent developments that indicate how data and data control are quickly becoming a major issue for today’s and tomorrow’s businesses.

First, of course, there is cloud computing. When you outsource infrastructure, applications or data, “ownership” becomes a bit theoretical.

You may “own” the data in the cloud, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have effective control over them. What happens when you are denied access? What happens when your provider gets hacked, and loses your data?

Can you prevent other people from accessing or using data? Do you have a legal monopoly, or exclusive rights to your data?

Lots of risks, and, of course, also opportunities.

But there’s more. Let’s take Actiance. Actiance sells social media monitoring software. This allows companies to monitor the kind of information that their employees post on social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. However, the employer not only monitors the information but is also able to change or block content posted by its employees.

So, let’s assume you decide to update your CV, because, you know, maybe you may want to look at new opportunities. You mention this fantastic project you’ve been working on for the last six months, knowing that it will significantly increase your market value on the job market. And, of course, you ask the customer’s project manager to endorse the fantastic work you’ve done. Press “send”.

And then, nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Why? Because your employer has decided that he doesn’t want you to publish that information.

Where’s the line? Who owns the information on your CV? Assuming you’re not in breach of confidentiality duties, is it possible for an employer to modify the data on your LinkedIn profile? Does your employer even have the right to look at them before you post them?

Is it possible to actually “own” data? What does “ownership of data” mean? If I own an apple, I can eat it, but you can’t. If I hold data, and you use them, does that diminish my rights on those data? Well, it will probably depend on the kind of data and the kind of use, wouldn’t it? Does “ownership of data” protect the economic benefit of holding on to certain data?

Many questions, not many answers.

I see two main distinctions that can be applied in this field.

The first is the nature or qualification of the data. There is a difference between personal data – data that allow a person to be identified, or that are closely linked to his/her identity. Your private address, your credit card details, but also your shopping profile and the websites you visit in the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep.

But there is also a difference between data that have qualitative value (knowledge, expertise) and data that have quantitative value (data in large quantities, allowing for so-called data-mining).

Rights and duties will turn out to be different depending on the kind of data we’re talking about.

The second distinction is purpose or use.

The value of data can differ quite significantly depending on the purpose for which they are or can be used. If I collect financial data for regulatory purposes, but then decide to use them also for commercial purposes, the value, and maybe even the nature, of those data effectively changes.

So data don’t exist in a vacuum – their value, extent of protection and even their nature will depend on the kind of applications or functions that exist, or to which they are exposed.

Businesses that understand how they can use data, and use their rights in their – and others – data, will have a clear competitive advantage.

“Knowledge is Power” as always.