Who owns the data?

Dylan Wrathall has joined in on the 'patch watcher debate' (click here to read it) and has made a number of interesting points. The one that got me going was dealing with bird information and who owns it. That's quite a hot topic at the moment.

Let's assume that you are walking along a hedgerow, binoculars at the ready, and a Red-flanked Bluetail flits out of the vegetation and starts to hop about in front of you. You have found the bird and at that moment in time, nobody else has seen it, let alone knows about it. What do you do with that information - that there is a Red-flanked Bluetail present at this particular patch of yours. There is more than one scenario. You could say nothing and nobody need ever know about it. Or you could say nothing and then send in the record (with a description) to the local bird recorder sometime in the future. There again, you could tell a few close friends and leave it at that. Or you could text, tweet, phone and shout so that the whole of the birding world knows about it. But, whatever you decide to do IT IS YOUR INFORMATION AND WHAT YOU DO WITH IT IS ENTIRELY UP TO YOU. I've put that in capital letters because it's up to the individual what course of action they will take, whether you agree with how they deal with it or not. Of course, to say nothing and tell nobody will have no repercussions, because as far as everybody else is concerned, it never happened. To do nothing and spill the beans later - well, let's just say that you will need to be prepared for a backlash, whether it's warranted or not.

But, once your news has gone out into the public domain, it seems to be taken for granted that this is now public property. Bird information services (texts, pagers, websites, magazines) will publish it (and charge customers for it) without asking you if it's OK for them to do so. IS THIS FAIR?

The companies that own these services wouldn't use a photograph that you'd taken of the Bluetail without your permission to do so (and you might also get paid for them publishing it). So why should information be free? Is it written in law somewhere that information sent out into cyberspace is public property? And what about information that hasn't been 'released' by the finder in a digital format, but by a friend who has tweeted this information after getting a phone call or a private text message about the Bluetail's presence?

A hard one, this. The more I think about it the more confused I get. If I send in my bird records to a county recorder, I sort of accept that these can be used in the publication of that county's annual bird report. But what of third-party usage beyond that, particularly one in which the third-party is making money? There must be a legal ruling on all of this, but I'm not going to contact a solicitor to find out - have you seen how much they charge an hour?

For most of us, the free use to others of our birding data is just accepted and we don't give it much consideration. It's an unwritten rule in the world of amateur ornithology. But there are professionals out there who are more than happy for us to carry on with a free supply of product...


laurence.d said…
From my own point of view,personally, I get more back from the services than the info that I give out,just because I dont find many good birds !,we give the information freely because only a specialist service can distribute it quickly enough to be of use to most birders,I dont begrudge them a living out of it,but none of the services are perfect...,yeah I think if you give the info to a news service then it becomes public property ,if you dont,or tell just a small crowd,then please keep it between them and the county recorder,the worst possible scenario is the "present for last 20 days but no sign today" chesnut,sorry if I,ve strayed off the topic..
Steve Gale said…
You haven't strayed off topic at all Laurence, it's all linked. The Dusky Thrush in Devon is a good example of information that the masses felt as if they had a rightful access to.
laurence.d said…
It seems to me that these things always get blown up when someone cant resist publishing photos of birds that have been kept quiet and then understandably birders not in the loop think ,hang on a minute I didnt hear about that one ?,as I say, if circumstances demand suppression so be it but releasing late news or photos always looks like deliberate gripping-off.
Dylan Wrathall said…
In response to Laurence's points and after some time, to consider my position, might I be allowed to offer another angle on the subject? Yes, it is true that these cyber sites are superbly equipped to release information, at the drop of a hat - thus it is a "no brainer" if an individual is looking to get news into the public domain asap! But what about those guys who don't wish for such publicity - an example being a "blogger" who writes daily posts about the birds visiting his garden feeding station. An "Eastern Lesser Whitethroat" is visiting the fat-balls in his suburban back garden - he's got some fantastic photos which he shares with the rest of blogland - a third party then passes this onto Birdguides, et al, Immediately the news is released, it will arouse interest; there will be county listers and others who feel that they have been given the green light, because it is being reported by a major news provider. Oblivious to all this is our "blogger" who will then be subjected to a series of requests to provide access - competely unaware of the possible consequences.
I won't continue with this hipothesis - just say that the use of information, under these circumstances, should have some degree of responsibility. Bird News providers should ensure that the information is intended for national release before placing it in the public arena.
If someone decides to publish a photo of a "suppressed" bird? This might not be a deliberate attempt at gripping others off but, instead, confirming that such a bird was present (at this non-public/sensitive location) and here's a photo to prove it!
As for the ownership of such information - we could debate for ever, and a day, and still never arrive at a consensus decision - two sides of a very emmotive subject.
Steve Gale said…
Dylan, this (and many other) aspects of recording natural history have polar opposites of opinion and takes. Maybe we should all just celebrate that!!

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