Does copyright law allow you to restrict use of your observations—the data, this is, not the photos?

If your observations say “All rights reserved” at the bottom right of the page, iNaturalist will not send the data to GBIF!

Am I the only one who did not realize that the license/copyright statement at the bottom right of each observation does not apply to the photos? It applies to the data: the time, place, username, and proposed taxon, along with any other non-photographic, non-audio information the observer provides.

Can you legally copyright the observation itself? If not, how will someone familiar with copyright law know that they need to click one of the icons on the photo to determine whether the photo (or audio clip) has a more restrictive copyright?*


Just to confuse things even more it’s unclear what exactly the “observation copyright” applies to, for example here I was told it only applies to additional text you add and not the observation as a whole (especially not time, place, username, taxon, etc.)

With that interpretation the answer would be no, you cannot restrict use of those data as the copyright does not apply to them (just to text that 99% of observations don’t even have). But that’s just one interpretation and I don’t think any of the old threads about it had a clear conclusion - GBIF obviously thinks the copyright applies to all the data.

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Generally, you can’t copyright data/facts, but it’s possible that you could enforce copyright on some other part of an observation (like notes or description).

I would recommend checking out other threads on the forum about copyright and observations for more details and thoughts, but the answer I’ve most often head to “Can you copyright an observation?” is something like “Probably not, but that would be determined through litigation.”

Copyright also varies widely by location, and, since iNat users are from all around the globe, it might be possible to claim copyright over different parts of an observation in different jurisdictions. iNat’s approach (which seems good to me) offers users the option to claim copyright over their observations - however, anyone can claim copyright over something. The real issue is whether one can enforce copyright (ie, bring any sort of legal consequences to bear for someone who doesn’t respect that copyright claim). That, of course, is left to individual users, but at least with the current system users can assert their (potentially extant) rights.


I think there’s a lot of gray area and it comes down to acting responsibly and with academic integrity when using somebody else’s data. There’s the concept of plagiarism, which involves the ‘stealing’ of somebody else’s ideas without proper acknowledgement and since ideas/facts can’t be copyrighted is different from a copyright violation. In adacemic circles, plagiarism is usually frowned upon and considered cheating. Students can get in trouble for it if they do it in class, and every now and then there’s a news story going around about some politician or other public figure losing their doctorate or whatever because they plagiarized on their thesis (e.g. ‘forgot’ to cite their sources).

Artists aren’t fond of having their artwork plagiarized either. I’m not in that scene but from what I’ve gathered from the sidelines is that there is a big upset right now about how AI is being used to copy art styles, for example. Somebody feeds a particular artist’s works into an AI training program, and then generates artwork that is not an exact copy but very closely resembles that of the artist. Technically not a copyright violation either but I can see why the artist would be upset about it.


copyright law regarding data varies a lot by jurisdiction. but beyond copyright law, there are contract laws that can protect data, and there are just social norms that offer some protection, too.

in the case of contract laws, it doesn’t look like iNaturalist actually has specific terms of use or mechanisms that would regulate people’s ability to use / reuse data, other than stipulations that the API is not to be used to do bulk downloads. however, if your data goes to GBIF, it is protected over there by GBIF’s terms of use + data user agreement and policy that requires users to log in to download data. those terms require data users to respect whatever license terms the data publishers have applied to the data.

in terms of social norms, if someone explicitly indicates that they want you to respect certain conditions such as attribution when you use their data, even if you are not legally required to do so, i would think it’s probably best to still respect whatever those wishes are.

at the end of the day though, if you’re seeking to protect IP rights, you have to consider what you’re protecting and what options you realistically have to enforce your wishes. even if you could seek recourse in the courts, would you actually go to the effort of hiring a lawyer to represent your interests in court? or if, say, someone didn’t credit you a source for data that made up a large part of their research, would that matter to you so much that you would shame them in whatever circles consume that research?


Thanks, everyone. I was hoping to get a definite “NO” answer, because I do not see any reason to encourage people to copyright their observations. But the answer is more complicated.

I suppose the possibility that the data in an observation might be copyrightable somewhere in the world offers at least a little justification for iNat to make data copyrighting the default choice for participants.

For myself, I do not want to copyright anything except a small % of my photos. I have changed my data copyright accordingly, despite iNat’s failure to make clear what the copyright at the bottom of the observation page refers to.

I apologize for not being clearer when I posted this.


I also wouldn’t encourage people to all rights reserve their observations! And I think when choosing account settings, iNat somewhat encourages users to select a license that allows sharing with GBIF. The check box for account creation says:
“Yes, license my photos, sounds, and observations so scientists can use my data (recommended).”

and the “Learn more” link says:
“Check this box if you want to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license to uploaded content. This means anyone can copy and reuse your photos and/or observations without asking for permission as long as they give you credit and don’t use the works commercially. You can choose a different license or remove the license later, but this is the best license for sharing with researchers.”

I personally think that this strikes a decent balance between encouraging use of a permissive license and offering freedom to users. One potential downside to offering users no choice to assert copyright to their observations is that some users might not participate at all if not given this choice. But I’m personally in favor of improving the language around this if possible to encourage more users to have a more open license on their observation data (if not their photos). But communicating technical license info to new users who may not be familiar seems pretty challenging…

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We should probably ask a lawyer who deals with copyright law. Not one to be stopped by mere lack of expertise . . . .

When it comes to clearly copyrighted material like published books and journals, we use the information and that’s considered perfectly OK. We can’t use the photos or the exact wording. So, I would expect that it’s perfectly legal to use the information in the copywrited observation (what was where when) but not to copy the photo or copy-paste the wording of any notes. If you don’t want others using the information, don’t post it.


I’m not a laywer, but my understanding is that facts (eg nancyinsunnyvale saw a great egret on X date and in Y location) may not be ownable/copywritable - it’s up for debate. Currently on iNat we treat observation data as something the observer owns, but eventually that might have to change.

As far as photos and sounds go, you will own the copyright if you took them. The Creative Commons licensing options provided by iNaturalist are about whether other people can use them without asking you, and under what strictures they can do so. The copyright and the license are two separate things (which is really confusing). Setting your photo’s license to CC-BY-NC doesn’t mean you give up ownership of the photo. You’re just allowing people to use it as long as they abide by the license.


Excellent point!

So, what’s really needed is for iNat to add after the Creative Commons icon for the “observation”: “This license not applicable to photos/recordings. Click icons on photo for photo license.”


Aspects of copyright licensing have been addressed in a few places:

But it still seems unclear as to what the “observation license” actually covers. Is it meant to cover the fact that a particular species was documented at a particular place and at a particular time (thus one cannot make use of those data if the license prohibits it)? Or is it meant to cover any written comments made in the notes section? Or both?

[Edit added after posting: I take it from reading this thread that this is probably an unsettled legal question. But it may add to everyone’s understanding by defining what “observation data” is.]


I think a fact like:

almost certainly cannot be copyrighted, see

A fact could be protected by things like non-disclosure agreement, trade secrets, export controls under arms trafficking regulations, or classified, but not copyrighted. However, as that FAQ says, the way the fact is expressed maybe can be copyrighted.

So in this case, what (debatably) could be copyrighted is the manner of expressing the fact, that is to say in this case you possibly could make a legal demand that a different inaturalist observation of the fact that “nancyinsunnyvale saw a great egret on X date and in Y location” be taken down. Obviously the duplication would also be against site policy. While demanding it be taken down is one thing, for an actual lawsuit the challenge you would run into is proving any specific harm to you from the alleged infringement. Maybe if, say, an infringing observation somehow made it into an ‘observation of the day’, you would have an argument that you had been deprived of accolades that could have had some kind of tangible value to you.

On the other hand, the actual verbatim text of your caption/commments/field notes almost definitely can be copyrighted, just like the pictures can. However, it is again hard to see in most cases how a caption would be used in an infringing manner that actually harmed you without also being fair use. The most plausible scenario I can imagine is if you had created your own personal ID key for a species and put that in the caption, and then your key was reprinted verbatim in a commercial field guide without permission/attribution (depending on your license terms).


I’m more interested in this from the researcher’s side. The OP’s title and many of the replies is from the perspective of the person posting the observation. If a researcher is interested in making a map of species occurrences (or some other use of the data behind the observations), does the researcher have to worry about observations in which the “observation license” is, e.g. CC-BY-ND? Do all of the observers with anything other than CCo licenses need to be attributed within the publication?

[Edit added later: I see now that this is discussed in the forum here…but without any resolution.
It just seems really odd to me that a researcher can go to a scientific museum, look at specimens with data tags, and use that data in a publication, but they can’t do the same with iNaturalist specimens. Why would iNat have decided to allow “collectors” to copyright the data of the specimens whereas a museum would not? What’s the difference?]

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I reckon it depends on the editor’s policies. In at least some publications, authors routinely acknowledge observers/collectors and other little hands who make everything possible, instead of just cough reviewers.

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I’m pondering on whether there’s a difference. Not on what is ethical or possible. Let me restate it like this. Do researchers, legally, have to treat the observational data of “specimens” posted on iNat differently than the exact same observational data of “specimens” in a museum collection?

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In which country?

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I suspect that the answer to this question

is, as in others with copyright surrounding observation data,

or somewhat similar. But I find it quite unlikely that a data poster would sue a data user for using observation data without attribution that the OP posted online, especially given that it seems unlikely that they would win.

Because of that, I think the more relevant question is probably whether it is ethical to post without acknowledgement or not - to which my personal opinion is that it is not ethical or advisable to publish data without acknowledgement if the data creater has stated their wish to be acknowledged via their choice of license.

There are three main reasons I think this:

  1. It makes the data more transparent/reproducible to acknowledge/identify the creator of the data (which is a broad goal of science in my opinion).

  2. It is really easy to do this. It could be as simple as thanking iNaturalist users in the acknowledgements and posting a link to a GBIF doi which contains accessible username information. I’ve also seen papers that include the original data download in a supplement (which has usernames), which have a table/spreadsheet of usernames of contributors, or even acknowledge users in the paper itself when contributors are few. Of all the tasks involved in publishing a scientific paper, this is one of the easier ones. I’ve required authors to add acknowledgements as a reviewer myself, so I assume that there are papers out there that don’t acknowledge properly, which is unfortunate. For what it’s worth, I’ve also had to require that authors properly acknowledge NHCs in paper as well.

  3. It makes it more likely that users will continue contributing data (and new users might be encouraged to do so as well), if data creators wishes are respected.


Agree 100%–but that’s not really the issue. Some CC licenses require permission before using–not just acknowledgement. So a researcher would need to go through the data to ensure that they’re not using any of those observational data, or, if they are, ask the persons for permission. None of this is done for museum specimen data where the standard practice is to just reference the museum acquisition number (there is no need to check the museum specimens for CC license and I’ve never seen a publication acknowledge individual collectors by name). So back to the question of why would iNat have decided to allow “collectors” to copyright the data of the specimens whereas a museum would not? What’s the difference?

Yes, they should. Though data with those licenses will not be exported to GBIF. If researchers download observations directly from iNat, then they might get data from observations with restrictive licenses and need to ask contributors.

I think this is also in a sense a question for museum people - why haven’t they allowed their contributors to license their data?

My own guess is that there are probably lots of reasons, but that historical contingency is a big one. Collections were, in many cases, created as institutions and their associated practices/norms established before copyright was as much of a thing and certainly before CC licenses and the ease of individuals to establish copyright. iNat was created after this, and there’s an expectation and even legal requirement (I think in many jurisdictions? not sure) that sites hosting and publishing user data lay out who has the rights to hosted/posted content.

I would guess that NHCs are essentially licensing their content to data portals/providers, but I don’t know that this looks like behind the scenes.

I also think that it makes a difference that many NHC collection specimens were created by employees of the collection. In this sense, as terms of their employment, they may not have any individual rights to those specimens (ie, they were paid to make them for the museum), so it’s possible the museum/organization would hold any copyright that might exist.

As a last thought, many museum have (and maybe still do?) offered an “unofficial copyright” period by restricting access to specimens before a collector says that they are done with them or not publishing data for certain specimens until some collector determined embargo period has passed. This type of practice accomplishes some of the same things as copyright in terms of controlling data for a period of time to give the data creators exclusive use of it.


The same is true for NCBI/Genbank (the database of DNA sequences) as it is for museum collections. Most journals require researchers to upload their DNA sequences to Genbank and reference the Genbank numbers. We aren’t given the option to copyright the DNA sequences or the data associated with them when we submit those data. And we don’t reference the names of the individuals who generated those data–just the Genbank number. NCBI/Genbank state: “NCBI places no restrictions on the use or distribution of the GenBank data. However, some submitters may claim patent, copyright, or other intellectual property rights in all or a portion of the data they have submitted. NCBI is not in a position to assess the validity of such claims, and therefore cannot provide comment or unrestricted permission concerning the use, copying, or distribution of the information contained in GenBank.” Note: natural DNA sequences are not protectable by copyright as they are products of nature, not creative endeavors.