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Data licences

Licensing is a way to stipulate when and how protected rights in research data (such as copyright) can be used by others.

Protection of research data

Usually, a licence is needed to use someone else’s data, that is protected by copyright or related rights.

Original scientific work, such as a database or publication, is protected by copyright. Nobody apart from the author has the right to make the work public or reproduce it.

Deciding if or which research data is protected by copyright can be challenging, since different types of data have specific protection. In general, and unless otherwise licensed:

  • Data as such, like facts, principles, mathematical concepts and methods are not protected by copyright.
  • Research data that meets the database definition (i.e. databases that are creative/original in the selection and/or arrangement of the contents and constitute their authors’ own intellectual creation), can be protected by copyright.
  • Research data that qualifies as original literary or scientific work (such as a journal article or a software) is protected by copyright.

If you want to verify whether your data are protected by copyright or not, check with the Library or the Legal Team of the TechTransfer Office in your Institute.

If a dataset is protected by copyright or related rights and doesn’t have a licence, other people are restricted in the way they can use that dataset, unless the owner(s) of the rights gives permission. There are a limited number of exceptions that permit use without a licence or specific permission. Therefore, to ensure reusability of a dataset or other copyrightable research object, it is good practice to apply a standard and open licence.

Open licences

It is good practice to apply a free or open licence that grants the general public various levels of permissions and ensure legal interoperability and the widest possible reuse.

Among the standard licences commonly used for research data is the suite of Creative Commons (CC) licences, which offers different levels of permission.
CC licences conformant with the “Open Definition” are:

  • Public Domain Dedication (CC0 1.0): waives (gives up) all possible copyright and related rights.
  • Attribution (CC-BY-4.0): gives others maximum freedom to reuse (i.e. copy, redistribute, adapt) your work, provided they give appropriate credit.
  • Attribution Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA-4.0): same as CC-BY-4.0, but requires redistribution of derivative works under this same licence.

Licences commonly used for software can be found here.

Data licences and repositories

When sharing your dataset in a repository, a licence can be applied in several ways:

  • A repository can apply its default licence or sharing policy to all deposited datasets. In this case, restrictions on the use of data obtained through the repository can be found on the repository’s webpage, usually under “Help”, “FAQ” or “About us”.
  • Some repositories require that the datasets owner selects a licence from a list of options, when depositing the datasets.
  • Other repositories let the owner specify the licence in the data documentation, such as a README file, attached to the data.

Repositories can be selected based on data licence and sharing policy by using

How to select and apply a licence



Sources and further reading