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Intellectual property rights and research data

A database is defined in law as 'a collection of independent works, data or other materials which: a) are arranged in a systematic or methodical way, and b) are individually accessible by electronic or other means' (Copyright and Rights in Databases Regulations 1997). Therefore any collection of data made or used in the course of research is likely to constitute a database subject to legal protections for intellectual property.

Intellectual property rights (IPR) affect the way both you and others can use your and others' research data, and these issues should be considered at the outset of any research project.

Failure to clarify rights in your primary data and permissions for the use of secondary data at the start of your research can affect your ability to use and disseminate the data. It can also cause you legal trouble if you infringe another party's IPR, for example by publishing data without authorisation.

University IP policy can be found in the University's Code of Practice on Intellectual Property.

If you need assistance with any research contracts that affect IPR, you should contact your Contracts Manager. For queries relating to commercial exploitation of IP and any related restrictions on data sharing, contact the IP Manager.

Primary data and software

In general the following three principles apply:

  • Where no external contract exists, the University has ownership of datasets or software created in the course of research undertaken by researchers in its employment;
  • Where research is carried out under a contract or research agreement, the terms of the agreement will determine ownership and rights to exploit the data;
  • The University does not automatically own student IP, although in some circumstances students may be required to assign IP to the University, for example, where research is carried out under third-party contract or where the data are produced with the significant involvement of University employees.

Research collaboration and partnership agreements, and industrial sponsorship/CASE studentship agreements will include IP clauses, specifying where ownership of arising IP resides. It is standard in collaboration and partnership agreements for ownership of IP to belong to the originating party. In industrial sponsorship/CASE agreements, ownership of arising IP usually resides with either the student or the University.

Research contracts also have Publication clauses, which generally grant other parties the right to be notified of and have the opportunity to approve or delay any intended publication. This right exists irrespective of who owns the IP created under the contract. Deposit of data in a data repository for long-term preservation and sharing will constitute effective publication, so any notice requirements and lead times must be factored into planning for archiving of data. The standard notice period is 30 days.

You should always keep a copy of any legal agreements governing your research, and refer to them in your planning, and again prior to making your data publicly available, in order to ensure you are complying with your contractual obligations.

Where ownership of research data or software resides with the University, researchers are authorised under the Research Data Management Policy to make data and source code openly available, providing no commercial, legal or ethical restrictions apply. If staff at other universities in the UK, Europe, North America or Australasia are co-creators of the data, it is likely that these universities will permit data sharing also, as most universities have similar policies that promote the sharing of research data. But it will be wise to check with the co-creators/their institutions. You should in any case always ensure any colleagues with other organisations who had a hand in creating the dataset or software are aware that they will be published and the terms on which they will be made available.

While for University employees authorisation in principle to publish data and software source code created in research under an open licence may be assumed, the particular context should always be taken into account. For example, if it is an objective of the research to create a proof of concept with a view to commercialisation, there may be a very good reason not to make project IP (including relevant data) openly available. Be aware that open licences applied to data and source code cannot be revoked once they have been applied.

If students at other institutions have co-created a dataset, they should be asked to confirm who has ownership of their IP and that permission to disclose it on the specified licence terms is granted. They may need to check their insitution's IP policy and any relevant sponsorship or IP assignment agreement.

Who created the data/software?

Ownership of IP follows creation, so it is important to be clear about who is and is not the creator of a dataset or piece of software. The creation of research outputs is often a collective endeavour, involving the work of many hands, which may belong to staff and students of the University, as well as employees of other organisations.

A dataset creator is someone who has had a direct creative hand in the selection and arrangement of data to form the dataset. This is not necessarily the same as being involved in the design of the research or in the collection of data. For example, in most cases, a student's supervisor will not be a creator of a dataset, nor will a technician or contractor who has been involved in the collection of data. The creator of written code is similarly one who has had a direct authorial hand in its creation. If existing code is incorporated or adapted, then there may be subsisting IP rights that will need to be taken into account.

It should always be borne in mind that when a person is identified as a creator of a piece of intellectual property, IP rights will follow, and disclosure of the IP, for example by deposit of a dataset in a data repository, may entail seeking permission from acknowledged rights-holders.

Secondary data

If you are collecting and processing secondary data from existing sources (e.g. a commercial database, posts to a social media site such as Twitter, data collected and made available by other researchers), then you do not own the data or have any rights in them. You may have defined permissions to use the data under contract or according to the data provider's licence, and these may or may not allow you to publish a subset of the data or any derived version of the data as a research output. For example, data in a commercial database will be provided under a licence prohibiting their distribution. In contrast, government and research data are often made available under open licences, such as Creative Commons Attribution, which permit copying and distribution.

If you wish to use secondary data, consider as early as possible in your research whether you are likely to want to reproduce any subset of the data or any derived dataset as part of your eventual research outputs. If such permissions are not granted through the copyright owner's standard licence, it may be possible to negotiate them. Bear in mind that permissions may distinguish between non-commercial and commercial uses, and that there may be a cost to secure any permissions.

See the web page on secondary data for further guidance.

Contact us


Robert Darby, Research Data Manager

0118 378 6161