Big Data: who owns it?

Big data is the new hype. It’s unstructured data spanning petabytes in volume. Although big data gives rise to new insights because of the sheer size of it, there are problems with it. One of the most important questions to ask about big data is: who owns it?

Big Data, who owns it?

Does telephone call metadata — the location, time, and duration of calls rather than their conversational content — belong to the caller or the phone network? Regardless of what it says in the “agreement” between you and Facebook, is what you write on your timeline yours, or is it Facebook’s? What about the “Internet of things”? When cars become part of the Net, will it be the drivers, owners or manufacturers who own the data they generate?

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter may respect your ownership right, but almost all of them reserve the right to control how and where they can use your content, including the right to share it with third parties. And what is respect for ownership exactly, when with some you will need to take their word for it when you want your content to be removed.

The general consensus with all these questions is that a legal void has been created as intellectual property laws have not kept up with the pace of technological change. But if you take a close look, there really is no need to amend IP laws for big data.

What is the difference between big data content and other content that would possibly lead to discussions? It’s not the size, but the manipulation, interpretation and subsequent publishing of results.

Now, if we keep to the current field of application of IP laws and treaties, you own what you generate yourself. A photo shot by you, and uploaded — published — on a social media network, does not automatically transfer property rights from you to them. In order for that to happen, you must first agree to transfer your ownership or to grant them specific usage rights. It’s as if you were licensing your content to them.

With big data, there isn’t a difference. Just as when you would be using a typewriter to write a book, the data itself is generated by you, using an instrument like a car, an app, a social media network or anything else. As long as the thing spitting out the data needs you to ignite and maintain the data creation processes, I can’t see the problem from a pure legal-theoretical point of view.

However, you can bet your life on it that the instrument makers — app developers, social media companies and “thing” manufacturers — will do everything in their power to take away your property right from you and have legislators across the globe legalise a shift in ownership so they can profit from it.

Which is one reason why you shouldn’t publish valuable data on anything else but a medium or channel that you control — such as a website…