Waze Ruling and the Limits of Copyright Protection for Online Data

December 28, 2015

Data privacyA recent ruling by a federal district court in California highlights once more the limits to copyright protection for collections of data.  The court concluded that data collected by the app, Waze, which provides continually updated traffic condition reports, was not protected by copyright law.  This case provides another example of the unwillingness of courts to apply copyright protection to data collections unless those collections include some type of creative component.

Previously, Waze had engaged in negotiations with one of its competitors, PhantomAlert, which reportedly involved some sharing of traffic data.  Before any formal relationship between Waze and PhantomAlert was completed, Waze was acquired by Google.  PhantomAlert later sued Google, alleging misuse of certain PhantomAlert traffic information.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerJudge Joseph Spero concluded that the traffic data in question was not subject to copyright law protection.  He determined that the material was simply a collection of information, and it did not display any creativity or originality as to organization, format or presentation.  Accordingly, Judge Spero ruled in favor of Google, dismissing the copyright claim.  However, Judge Spero also invited PhantomAlert to amend its complaint and to re-file if it could identify creative or original content that was misappropriated by Waze and Google.

The ruling in this case is consistent with a series of copyright decisions, including the Feist case, which have developed over the years.  This case, like the Feist case, found no copyright law protection despite the fact that the data collections at issue included some inaccurate material deliberately included in the collections to provide evidence of copying of the datasets by other parties.  These cases have established a clear legal foundation requiring data aggregators to demonstrate that their collections involve creative and original content in order to assert copyright protection.

Some jurisdictions other than the United States provide more expansive legal protections for data aggregators.  The European Community, for example, authorized developers of data collections to enforce legal rights of ownership and control over their datasets which are independent of copyright law and have a broader reach.

When operating in jurisdictions such as the European Community that recognize proprietary rights for data aggregators, datasets can be protected independent of copyright law requirements.  In jurisdictions that do not recognize such independent rights for data aggregators, such as the United States, data aggregators must ensure that their materials include creative and original content in order to qualify for copyright protection.  Copyright law does not provide proprietary rights for collections of data or information, but instead protects creative and original elements associated with the organization, format, and presentation of that data.