What is a database?

“Database” is a term with no precise definition. At its most generic, a database might be described as an “organized collection of data”, which is probably, but not necessarily, electronic in nature. Because these electronic collections have become so familiar, however, the term has expanded beyond its purely technical meaning. To a programmer, the term might still refer to a specific application that’s used to classify data into different types; but to a warehouse manager, it might mean a helpful tool that assists in shipping and storage. A privacy-rights activist might even use the term as a pejorative to refer a government surveillance program.

In addition to ambiguous real-life meaning, the term is also subject to ambiguous legal meaning. The U.S. Copyright Office has stated that “[i]n the terminology of copyright law, a database is a compilation: a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data...”. The 17 U.S.C. § 101 definition of “compilation”, however, does not include the result when non-preexisting materials have been added to the mix, deciding only when preexisting materials have been sufficiently creatively arranged to become an “original work of authorship.” In another context, the Copyright Office has defined an “automated database” as “a body of facts, data, or other information assembled into an organized format suitable for use in a computer and comprising one or more files”, apparently without restricting the source of the information. The EU Database Directive (96/9/EC) permits a database to include a broad variety of content: “[T]he term ‘database’ should be understood to include literary, artistic, musical or other collections of works or collections of other material such as texts, sound, images, numbers, facts, and data; [] it should cover collections of independent works, data or other materials which are systematically or methodically arranged and can be individually accessed...”.

Apart from the difficulty inherent in legally defining what a “database” is, it can also be unclear how a database should be legally treated. The next section will demonstrate why this is so.