Legal Issues for Community Vocabularies

This section is in preliminary draft form, and is publicly available with the understanding that it is not an official representation of the MMI position. This preamble will be removed once the document has been internally reviewed.   Ed.—2008.09.25

Legal Concerns

Nothing in the following should be construed as legal advice. It is strictly an informal discussion of issues to consider. Readers should consult legal authorities in making their own judgment about appropriate ways to present material.

Above all, it is essential to avoid serving licensed, copyrighted, classified, or proprietary content without the permission of the license holder. If there is any reasonable possibility that the material is not in the public domain, explicit permission must be sought before serving the vocabulary. This is especially true for international material, where the laws for reusing material may not be the same as in the host country.

In some cases it may be impossible to ascertain the status of material that is available on the web. While the appearance of unattributed material on the web suggests to some that it is freely available for reuse, this is not always the case, and it is best to be cautious. At the same time, when material is older or has the appearance of being freely offered, a suitable approach may be to present your transformed version of the material, clearly referencing the original source and offering to remove the material if the user does not want it posted.

An additional consideration is the possibility of 'fair use', in which a vocabulary or its terms may be cited in other works, for example for the purpose of commentary. While this is a (relatively) clear legal doctrine in the United States, it may be quite different in other countries. In this respect, how much of the original material is duplicated becomes an important consideration. For vocabularies, it may be appropriate to provide a reference to original terms (e.g., a URL), without representing those terms in their totality. This could allow the addition of appropriate metadata (definitions, mappings to other terms, comments, and so on) without necessarily replicating any of the additional material.

Finally, the community ethos may be relevant. To the extent terms are created to serve scientific purposes, it is often (but not always) the case that they are placed into the public domain for others to use, as wide adoption is a key factor toward acceptance. On the other hand, information products such as term lists may be viewed as formal publications, in much the same way a scientific paper is a formal publication. In that case, reusing the contents is clearly not acceptable, and the original document may not be in the public domain just because it is publicly available.

The ontology provide may want to express the terms (licensing, attribution, etc.) under which each ontology is presented, to the extent that can be faithfully represented. Here again, conservatism is called for; it will not do (to say the least) to declare a vocabulary is in the public domain when it has in fact been licensed elsewhere. 

While other legal issues like libel, copyright infringement in the source material, and privacy issues are less likely to arise, they must also be acknowledged. Clearly there are many legal factors to consider, and the ontology provider must be cognizant of the possibility of legal claims.

As a general principle, ontology providers should expect to maintain metadata for each ontology that documents any ontology's origins, any agreements reached (or under discussion) for presenting it, and the most recent status of the ontology's availability. 

MMI intends to tread conservatively, but realistically, in making ontologies available.  If anyone takes issue with MMI serving an ontology, the first response will be to remove the ontology from public access while the question is resolved. MMI's goal is to maximize interoperability, which requires it to have minimum issues in executing its mission.