Database right: meaning of database

By Audrey Horton


The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled on the meaning of “independent materials” of a database in the context of a topographic map for the purposes of Article 1(2) of the Database Directive (96/9/EC) (the Directive) (Article 1(2)).


A database is defined as a collection of independent works, data or other materials arranged in a systematic or methodical way and individually accessible by electronic or other means (Article 1(2)).


B, which published maps, was involved in proceedings with E, an Austrian publisher, which published maps for users such as cyclists. 

The German Federal Court stayed the proceedings and referred the following question to the ECJ: whether Article 1(2) meant that geographical data extracted from a topographic map so that a third party may produce and market another map retain, after extraction, sufficient informative value to be held to be “independent materials” of a database.


The ECJ held that the term “database” must be given a wide scope. It held that protection extends to electronic and non-electronic databases, and that the concept of database is defined in terms of its function.

It is necessary for there to be a collection of independent materials: materials which are separable from one another without their informative, literary, artistic, musical or other value being affected. Individual pieces of information, and also a combination of pieces of information, may also constitute independent material.

In relation to analogue topographic maps, the separable material consists of two pieces of information: the geographical co-ordinates point and the signature or numbered code used by the map producer to designate a particular feature. Article 1(2) does not preclude these two pieces of information, or a further combination of information, from being independent material, provided that the extraction of information from the map does not affect the value of their informative content. The informative value of material from a collection is not affected if it has autonomous informative value after extraction, even if there may be a decline in its informative value.

The autonomous informative value of material which has been extracted from a collection must be assessed in the light of the value of the information not for a typical user of the collection concerned, but for each third party interested in the extracted material. Information from a collection which is utilised for financial gain and in an autonomous manner, such as the information extracted by E from the B’s topographic maps, constitutes “independent materials” from a database because once extracted, the information will provide the company’s customers with relevant information.

Article 1(2) must be interpreted to mean that geographical information extracted from a topographic map by a third party so that the information may be used to produce and market another map retains, following its extraction, sufficient informative value to be classified as “independent materials” of a database.


This decision confirms that topographic maps are capable of falling within the definition of a database under Article 1(2), and so reflects the reality of how modern maps and their underlying data are produced and used.

Elements such as the location of a feature on a map provide information such as its latitude and longitude, its elevation and the type of feature. This informational value is not affected by being separated from the database as a whole, as would for example be the case in relation to a musical or literary work. The rejection of the typical user reflects the fact that modern maps have different users with a variety of purposes, including for example, as the court noted, planning travel between two points, preparing a bicycle trip, searching the name of a road, town, river, lake or mountain, the width of watercourses or the height of relief on the landscape.

The increased use and commercial exploitation of digital information is likely to result in a corresponding increase in cases involving database rights.

Case: Freistaat Bayern v Verlag Esterbauer GmbH C 490/14.

First published in the December 2015 issue of PLC Magazine and reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers. Subscription enquiries 020 7202 1200.