Ownership when the owner passed away


I have a question about the data ownership (e.g. datasets with CC-BY or CC-BY-NC license). What happens when the data owner passed away? Are there common rules or does GBIF set particular rules about how the data ownership is handled or transferred? If nobody can claim the ownership (e.g. the previous owner did not leave a message about the ownership), should the data become public domain? Or can we no longer serve the data?


Ei Fujioka
OBIS-SEAMAP, Duke University

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Hi, Ei,

You’ll want to refer to GBIF’s data publisher agreement, specifically this provision:

The Data Publisher warrants that it has made the necessary agreements with the original owners of the Data and other material which may be subject to a third party’s copyright or other similar rights, that it can make the Data available through the GBIF network. The GBIF Secretariat reserves the right to retract a dataset from publication if it has reason to believe that continuing its publication could create a direct responsibility as a service provider, until any such potential claim is cleared to the satisfaction of the GBIF Secretariat.

The licence doesn’t make any declarations about ownership, though—it’s focused on access and terms use. And if the owner is separate from the publishing institution, the data publisher agreement asserts that the latter has secured its right to share the data from the former. So the question then really becomes: does the data publisher retain the right to share the data after an individual owner’s death?

I have a hard time imagining that an individual owner’s death would prompt termination of the data publishing institution’s access. I’m not sure what claims—or value—an estate could place on data that would automatically warrant revocation of a licence granted during the original owner’s lifetime, especially in absence of an agreement to that effect.

Similarly, it would seem odd to me to withdraw data after an individual’s death, given that (no disrespect to the deceased) present-day personal data privacy regulations apply only to the living. But maybe others have views or precedents they can cite.

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There are also some more general FAQ items on the Creative Commons website: Frequently Asked Questions - Creative Commons, such as this one:

What happens if the author decides to revoke the CC license to material I am using?

The CC licenses are irrevocable. This means that once you receive material under a CC license, you will always have the right to use it under those license terms, even if the licensor changes his or her mind and stops distributing under the CC license terms. Of course, you may choose to respect the licensor’s wishes and stop using the work.


Thanks Matt. @JuttaBuschbom I’m assuming this use case might be discussed in the upcoming session at TDWG2022? Data liberation for open knowledge systems: the legal landscape of data licensing in publishing yes?

Thank you very much. All comments are very helpful! In the particular case I have been observing, the supervisor (the lab’s head) of the data co-owner who passed away has agreed to continue sharing the data with us. So, the issue is sorted out.

Hi @Debbie and all,

@efujioka good that you could resolve your situation in this way and receive an unambiguous answer.

Inheritance of rights and license agreements so far is generally not sufficiently taken into consideration by our community. As soon as one asks a data provider to assign a data license, they actually should also at the same step identify who will inherit the “say” for the data, or at least whom you can contact for further inquiries (see eg. here). Defaults that could be suggested might be the public commons (eg. CC0), the original data provider’s institution (which might be the rights holder in the first place since a grant under which the data was collected was to them), a data mediator/aggregator or a more specific agent (eg. individual, organization).

Our workshop at TDWG2022 (Thanks for the ad, Deb!) is focused on data within scholarly publications, which is similar though not completely so to data in data infrastructures. What can be learnt from the publications/library sector is that one major problem with pre-existing/legacy publications is the legal uncertainty that surrounds them. Has copyright been passed on (over generations)? Thus, does copyright still apply or is the publication now in the public commons? Whom to contact?

Thus, such a situation should be avoided by from the start clarifying the legal context already with a long-term perspective in mind.

@MattBlissett This sentence already points to the fact that the legal system is only one of the applicable dimensions and might actually be of less importance in the context of the biodiversity sciences.

Advising data providers to set their data in the public commons will simplify and clarify at least the legal context (see my previous post). This however doesn’t mean that no rules apply to the accessibility, use and benefit sharing associated with these data.

In the scientific context it is a well founded best practice and convention to cite the origin of data, ideas, contributed work, etc. This is independent of the any legal rules that might come with the data. Data in the public commons are as much to be cited as data with complex legal use agreements.

Maybe even more important are ethical and social considerations, as well as obligations to protect sensitive data. Even if data is in the public commons, its associated communities might decide not to provide unrestricted access to everybody (eg. human rights-based approaches, see UNSDG and Swedish PLANET tool for digitization and the protection of the rights of nature, including endangered species). For data already available in the “public commons” of the web, they might advise against sharing it further, and potentially using it without contacting the associated communities and finding agreement.

On the other hand, governments can decide that businesses provide (open) access to data in some form that they otherwise consider to be sensitive business intelligence, if such data is considered to be of crucial importance to society.

And I did it again. Everybody will tell you that data are not copyrightable. Yet, here we are discussing licenses.

A) So far, nobody could provide me with clear guidelines at what point (raw) data (metadata?) become a creative product (a dataset, a database) that can be copyrighted.

B) Nevertheless, GBIF asks (requires?) that its data providers provide licenses for their data. I would assume that this would also apply if one uploads a minimal dataset containing data of a single event/occurrence/specimen, etc.

@kcopas This is a situation that has been puzzling me for a while. Thus, I take the opportunity to ask. Can the licenses attached to data in GBIF be considered as rather be akin to social rules, suggestions, expressions of intent by the data provider than that they are legal statements?

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