The European Union and Electronic Databases: A Lesson in Interference?

by Barry Mahon

In February 1992 (my notes have the date as February 29 - if that is true then it is ironic; a leap year, maybe February 29, 1996, will see a result?) the European Commission (EC), the administrative arm of the European Union (EU), then known as the European Economic Communities (EEC), released the draft of a Directive which they intended would become the law of the EU by the end of 1992. The document, "Proposal for a Council Directive on the legal protection of databases," was designed to bring electronic data collections within the ambit of copyright protection and to bring into line the legal protection offered to electronic data collections in the Member States of the EU. That is the brief description of the beginning of a process that is ongoing, an attempt by a group of countries to bring their legislation concerning one type of electronic information up to date.

At the end of the first quarter of 1995 when this contribution is being written, there is no agreement on the text or even on a text which would incorporate the requirements. This article will attempt to analyze the various drafts of the text and the submissions of one representative body to explain how the original ideas of the Commission were received and have been modified in later versions.

The story starts long before February 1992. An article in the October 1990 issue of Newsidic, the newsletter of Eusidic (European Association of Information Services), reports on a meeting attended by Eusidic representatives on April 26 and 27, 1990. The meeting was a hearing by the EC on the subject of copyright and databases. The following conclusions, as reported by the EC, resulted from the meeting:

All speakers indicated that databases are, in their view, protected by copyright. This view was shared by the representatives of WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation).

A large majority of participants rejected the suggestion of an alternative form of protection instead of copyright (neighboring right or sui generis right).

Regarding the ownership of rights in the database itself, there was unanimity in saying that the author (the person creating the database) should be the first rightholder. A large majority believed that normal copyright rules should apply [to the inclusion of protected works in a database]. The same rule should apply to abstracts of protected works provided that they do not substitute for the original protected works themselves.

Most participants expressed a desire to see a criterion of originality compatible with the requirements of the Berne Convention and which would impose no special requirements on the authors of databases.

So far so good you might think. But the version of the draft Directive of February 1992 is in direct conflict with some of those opinions in some of its proposed provisions. For example, in the very first clause of the preamble we find the following comments:

Whereas databases are at present not clearly protected in all the Member States by existing legislation and such protection, where it exists, has different attributes;
whereas although copyright remains an appropriate form of exclusive right for the legal protection of databases. . . other measures are required to prevent unfair extraction. . . .;
whereas such protection [against misappropriation of the results of financial and professional investment in the creation of a database] of the contents of a database is to be achieved by a special right by which the maker of a database can prevent unauthorised extraction or reutilisation. . .
From that you can see that the first question that many people asked when the text was distributed was: Was the author of the text aware of the results of the hearing? And the second question was: What is the problem to which this draft is the proposed solution?

Giving the EC the benefit of the doubt, there were certain clarifications in the draft. For example, databases were clearly defined as "collections" within the meaning of the Berne Convention. What were the basic problems? Most commentators were unhappy with proposals such as the following:

the lawful user of a database may, without authorisation of the database maker, extract and re-utilise insubstantial parts of works or materials from a database for commercial purposes provided that acknowledgment is made of the source and even less happy with this one:

if the works or materials incorporated in a database which is made publicly available cannot be independently created. . . the right to extract and re-utilise in whole or in substantial part works or materials from that database for commercial purposes, shall be licensed on fair and non-discriminatory terms.
In the former case they were unhappy with the vague nature of the term "insubstantial" and in a submission to the EC, Eusidic said:

"Specifically, the definition [in the Directive] of 'insubstantial part' of a large database is inadequate. There is a danger that even a relatively small part, if extracted without authorisation, could be used to compete unfairly, for example, by extraction of all recent information on a specific subject."

After much debate with EC officials the outcome was:

"Substantial shall be more than what has been accepted (in the past?) by courts as insubstantial."

In other words there will have to be court decisions which can be quoted in other court cases where an action is taken alleging "unauthorised extraction."

That certainly was not the extent of concern expressed about the draft. As indicated in the box to the right, Eusidic had several substantive concerns about the EC directive.

The Revised Proposals

The text of February 1992 foresaw that the Directive would pass through all of its processes of examination and discussion in a period of 11 months and become law before the end of 1992. In fact the proceedings took substantially longer and, as stated above, are not yet completed. The European Parliament examined the draft and held a hearing of its own in March 1993 and proposed some changes. Finally, in October 1993 the EC produced a new draft which contained substantial alterations to some parts of the Directive. Only those parts which were referred to above are dealt with in respect of the new text.

In the preamble to the new draft a whole new paragraph was added as follows:

Whereas distributors of databases should make provision in their contracts as regards the unauthorised re-utilisation of the contents of the database by the lawful user where such re-utilisation is for strictly private purposes or for the purposes of teaching or research, provided such re-utilisation is not carried out for commercial purposes and does not prejudice the exclusive rights of the maker of the database to exploit that database.
Eusidic commented:
One interpretation of this is that database owners should restrict (re)use for private purposes but the Directive will be 'the law' concerning commercial (and other) re-use.
Concerning the definitions of "insubstantial part" the new draft suggested two things:
For the purposes of the term of protection provided for in this Article, 'insubstantial change' means insubstantial additions, deletions or alterations which, taken together, do not substantially modify the contents of a database.
For the purposes of the term of protection provided for in this Article, 'substantial change' means the successive accumulation of insubstantial additions, deletions or alterations in respect of the contents of a database resulting in substantial modification to all or part of a database.
Concerning the compulsory license aspects, the following changes were proposed:

Notwithstanding the right provided for [in Article 10(2)] to prevent the unauthorised extraction and re-utilisation of the contents of a database, if the works or materials contained in a database which is made publicly available cannot be independently created, collected or obtained from any other source, the right to extract and re-utilise, in whole or substantial part, works or materials from that database for commercial purposes that are not for reasons such as economy of time, effort or financial investment, shall be licensed on fair and non-discriminatory terms. A declaration shall be submitted clearly setting out the justification of the commercial purposes pursued and requiring the issue of a license.

The right to extract and re-utilise the contents of a database shall also be licensed on fair and non-discriminatory terms if the database is made publicly available by:

  1. public authorities or public corporations or bodies which are either established or authorised to assemble or to disclose information pursuant to legislation, or are under a general duty to do so.
  2. firms or entities enjoying a monopoly status by virtue of an exclusive concession by a public body.
For the purposes of this Article databases shall not be deemed to have been made publicly available unless they may be freely interrogated.

For the purposes of this Article, 'commercial purposes' means any use, which is not:

  1. private, personal, and
  2. for non-profit making purposes.
In addition some new clarifications were made, of which one of the more interesting was:

The incorporation into a database of bibliographical references, abstracts (with the exception of substantial descriptions or summaries of the content or the form of existing works) or brief quotations, shall not require the authorisation of the owners of rights in these works, provided the name of the author and the source of the quotation are clearly indicated in accordance with Article 10(3) of the Berne Convention.

And the rational for this was given in the accompanying explanatory memorandum as:

the clarifications to the text on limitations has been made to ensure that only those works or materials which are not subject to copyright (references), which do not infringe copyright in the pre-existing work (short abstracts) or which fall within Article 10 of the Berne Convention (quotations) can be incorporated into a database without authorisation. It is not intended that a database creator could incorporate abstracts written by third parties into his database without authorisation if such abstracts are themselves subject to copyright protection.

One immediate question which arose in relation to this was: What about author abstracts? Many database producers routinely use them as abstracts in their database.

The Political Discussion

The next stage in the examination was the political examination by the committees of the Council of Ministers, the decision making entity of the EU. The Council itself, the actual meetings of Ministers, normally approves texts which have been agreed at lower levels between the EC and officials from the Members States, meeting in committees, in which the text is examined line by line. This process started, in theory, as soon as the new draft was issued, because, officially, the Council should now make a decision on the Directive as proposed, following the Parliament's examination and the subsequent modifications. In practice this did not happen.

In the EU the Presidency of the Council of Ministers changes every six months, with a new Member State assuming the chair. In the first half of 1994 the Presidency was held by Greece and the Greek government did not consider the draft Directive of the legal protection of databases as a high priority item. Despite the fact that the draft was tabled by the EC, no substantive debate took place until the second half of 1994 when Germany took the reins.

By October 1994 the text was revised substantially. Again, concentration will be on the elements which were controversial in the first draft, although certain new proposals so altered the original concepts that they have to be mentioned also.

The first "shock" was that the basic definition had been extended to cover all collections, electronic or not. The new draft definition read as follows (words in [ ] in the following sections are there because they are alternatives, not yet agreed):

For the purposes of this Directive 'database' means a [collection, compilation] of data, works or other materials [arranged, stored and (capable of being) accessed by electronic means] [whether in machine readable or other form] (author's italics) [and the materials necessary for the operation of the database such as its thesaurus, index or system for obtaining or presenting information] it shall not apply to any computer program used in the making or operation of the database.

The article containing the proposals that extracts, quotations, etc., may be incorporated into a database without authorisation was deleted. This had the effect that the question about author abstracts "died."

Concerning the compulsory licensing the following text was suggested:

Notwithstanding the right provided for in Article 10 [the right to prevent unauthorised extraction] a license for commercial, research or educational purposes relating to the whole or substantial part of the works, data or other materials [in a database] shall be granted if those works, data or other materials can and could not have been created, collected or obtained from any other source.

The person requesting the license shall undertake to add value to the works, data or other materials thus obtained and not to have made the request for reasons solely of economy of time, effort or financial investment.

The license shall be granted on fair and non-discriminatory terms.

Licenses shall also be granted in the same circumstances and under the same terms and conditions by public authorities or public corporations or bodies which are either established or authorised to assemble or to disclose information pursuant to legislation, or are under a general duty to do so, and firms or entities enjoying a monopoly status by virtue of a concession by a public body.

The licenses referred to in this Article shall only be granted where the collection has been made publicly available in the sense that it may be interrogated or examined by anyone (against payment or free of charge a suggested addition) and the whole collection may be so interrogated or examined.

Here we have an even more specific wording than the second draft and this after examination by the representatives of countries where substantial and unique databases are created. One conclusion that can be suggested is that the owners of the databases are satisfied that they can construct contracts for the use of their products such that the provisions of the Directive would not apply.

Concerning "substantial and insubstantial," a number of "variations" were under discussion:

Any substantial change to the contents of a database which has been [made available to the public] [put on the market] [including any substantial change] resulting from the successive accumulation [additions] deletions or alterations, which would result in the database being considered to be [made available to the public] [put on the market] as a new database, shall qualify that database for its own term of protection


In the case of a database which is [made available to the public][put on the market] and the contents of which are not deleted or altered, but to which successive substantial additions are made, the maximum term of protection for the original material contained in the database when it was first [made available to the public][put on the market] shall be [50] years


Where paragraph 1b applies (the first option above), the term of protection for any material which was contained in the first database when it was first [made available to the public][ put on the market] and which is also contained in the new database shall expire at the latest [50] years from the first of January following the date when the first database was [made available to the public][put on the market].

By way of derogation from paragraphs a) b) and 2, in the case of a database which is [made available to the public][put on the market] and the contents of which are constantly updated, [if the maker of the database so chooses] the term of protection by the right provided for in Article 10 shall expire, for each data item, 15 years from the first of January following the date of insertion of that data item.

Wow! That's a lawyer's dream - significant confusion. In addition, all the proposals about "insubstantial changes" were deleted, it presumably being considered that the texts above would somehow or other deal with that issue.

By the end of 1994 the EU, like every other political body in the world, was hyping the Information Superhighway and the Information Society and making elaborate plans not to be left behind in the rush. The EU constituted a committee under the management of one of the Commissioners - the highest level of bureaucrat in the EC (primarily ex-politicians who are appointed by the Members States). In this case the Commissioner was the man responsible for IT and Industry, Martin Bangemann, a German.

The so-called Bangemann Committee contained high-level business people with interests in the superhighway and when they reported they said, amongst other things, that the EU needed to get its act together on Intellectual Property (IP) or the development of the Information Society would be retarded. This was enough to galvanize the EC into action to get the Directive on databases agreed, so that they could be seen to be doing something. As a German, Bangemann could be expected to put some pressure on his ex-colleagues in the Presidency of the Council to get a result before the end of 1994, when their term would be over. However, the attempt failed. In a meeting of the Council of Ministers on December 8, 1994, no political agreement could be found; in fact, there was not even a proposal, it was only "mentioned." In other words the state of play was described and the Ministers decided to continue the discussions in committee.

Where Are We Now?

On January 1, 1995, France took over the Presidency. There was some indication that they did not see the Directive as urgent, but there was still the pressure to do something vis a vis the Information Society, which was still a hot topic on the political agenda, especially with a meeting of the Group of 7 (most developed countries) on that topic, due to be held in late February. Simultaneously, three new countries joined the EU officially and sat down at the table where the discussions were taking place.

It is reported that one of the original difficulties, the difference in legal status in UK and Irish copyright law and that of the "Continental" countries, whereby the "author" has the basic right under Continental interpretation and the UK and Irish "sweat of the brow" type interpretation, has been sorted out in an agreed position where the author of a database's intellectual effort in the selection and arrangement of the items shall be the only criteria for copyright protection. Another element of that argument which may be removed as a result of the new Member States arrival is the presumption that employees of database producers have no rights as "authors" - the Continental view may prevail that they have rights. This may mean some strange contractual variations for free-lance abstractors! The question of including non-electronic materials under the Directive is still open - under the (maybe) agreed basic definition a very limited number of compilations would get real "new" protection, but since the States cannot even agree on what should be included under the basic definition, there is plenty of mileage in this one.

There is a view that the French presidency would go for a "minimalist" approach to get the Directive through. The counter argument is that this would offer no incentive to investors on the Superhighway. There the position rests. Since this article will not be published until later in 1995 one cannot assume that the situation will be the same at that time.


This article is quite deliberately subtitled "a lesson in interference." The original discussion in 1990 clearly did not identify a serious problem in protecting electronic databases under existing legislation. In the meantime GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and its TRIPS subset dealing with Intellectual Property have been agreed. Another development since 1990 was that some Member States of the EU began to question the "all powerful" nature of the EC, especially when the Danish people voted against accepting the Maastricht Treaty in its original form. The atmosphere surrounding the EC changed, what were seen as "must do" type developments were now not so important. This Directive is one example.

The original idea that the EC knew better than the Member States regarding the protection of electronic data compilations has been diluted for political reasons. The result may well satisfy those who feel that the EC tries to interfere too much. In this case the interference was probably unjustified. However, the outcome might well be a weak European Union situation concerning protection of electronic data and worse an unclear legal environment. There is nothing more disturbing than uncertainty when trying to decide on investments. Those with the wherewithal to invest in new electronic databases may well go elsewhere.

(copy for boxed sidebar on 2nd page of article)

EC Proposal, Council Directive on the legal protection of databases, February 1992

Eusidic on the "commercial" nature of "unauthorized" extractions:

[W]e are disturbed that the word 'commercial' is not defined. Although we accept that it has a general meaning in the context of use for the purposes of commerce we would contend that the arrangements made between producer and user of the database would normally be expected to cover the concept of extraction for commercial purposes and should be left to the contract between the parties. There is an implication in the present formulation that it is permitted to make unauthorised extracts provided they are not for commercial purposes. We must assume this was not the intent.

Eusidic on "compulsory licensing" provisions:

The novelty of the provisions foreseen under this Article are such that their application is likely, if not certain, to cause conflict between database compilers and (potential) licensees. It is therefore important that the terms be as unambiguous as possible


In the accompanying [explanatory] memorandum reference is made to rights being granted for non copyright material, however this is not reflected in the words of the Article.

EC response:

'Publicly Available' as mentioned here means 'available to everyone.'

[So, any database which is contractually restricted to a specific audience is not covered. This would apply even in the case where a database owner or distributor does not accept contracts from individuals, but only from "legal entities." This is considered to be less than "everyone." However, the officials were quick to point out that it would not be possible to assume new "rights" to yourself as database producer or distributor by virtue of a contract.]


Why were this Article and its rights included in the Directive?

EC response:

Quotation with acknowledgment of the source is an established practice and is "good publicity" for publications, and

It is impossible to prevent all extraction.

[Therefore they preferred to create certain basic rules. They also said that "commercial" meant all use which was not "home use" or "private use." They said that it would be up to the Courts to decide on matters covered by this Article.]

EC on the term of protection of a database:

Insubstantial changes to the selection and arrangement of the contents of a database shall not extend the original period of copyright protection of that database.

Eusidic response:

We have considerable difficulties with the interpretation of this Article. We are at a loss to understand how 'insubstantial change' will be interpreted where the chronological addition of material to a very large database is not a 'substantial change' simply because the database is large and we must assume that as the indexes are updated when new material is added to a database and the indexes refer to the whole content of the database and the indexes are included in the definition of 'database' then the copyright is renewed, in databases which contain indexes, at each alteration of the index.

If this is true then later sub-Articles need to specify that the 'insubstantial changes' do not apply to the indexes. Also, if this is true, indexed databases will be continually protected or at least until the indexes are not updated, which discriminates in their favor vis a vis non-indexed databases.

(boxed copy on 4th page)

European Union Members


Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, United Kingdom.

Added in 1995

Austria, Finland, Sweden