The EU has a stand-alone right to protect databases. Although this is not often used on its own to combat misuse of proprietary material, it can usefully fill a gap between other forms of protection. But how far you can take it is rather uncertain. A recent EU court decision, Freistaat Bayern v Verlag Esterbauer, looks at whether a collection of hard copy maps qualifies for database protection.
The story begins in Germany, where the Bavarian state published a complete set of paper maps for its attractive and much-visited territory. Austrian tourist guide publisher Verlag Esterbauer scanned the maps and extracted information about the coordinates of a point and the “signature” of a feature at that point. They then used the information to produce maps and tour books for mountain bike enthusiasts and the like. Bavaria sued.
The German courts were generally in favour of Bavaria’s claim, but had some doubts as to whether data about features of the earth’s surface could be “a collection of independent materials” as required by the Database directive. They asked for the EU court's advice.
The EU court said the extracted map features could be protected.
- EU legislators had intended the database right to have a wide scope, and so courts should be willing to interpret it generously without being too picky about the formal requirements.
- The purpose of the database right was to promote investment in data storage and processing systems with a view to supporting the burgeoning data industry.
The court said that the extracted coordinates and signature information could be regarded as “independent materials”.
They did have the required “autonomous informative value”, at least to Verlag Esterbauer’s customers. People planning a cycling trip did not necessarily need the same kind of information as drivers looking at maps for route information, and when assessing the value of extracted material you can consider the needs of different groups of users.
(The same point was highlighted in an earlier case, where the information interesting to betting shop customers was not the same as information needed by other people interested in football fixtures.)
This decision shows that database right deserves more attention. It could be the answer when you find your materials being extracted from a resource, even if it is not immediately obvious that the resource can be classified as a database.