Personal Data Ownership

Defining the ownership of personal data to approach a more equitable distribution of data value.


Shadow of a Smartphone

Personal Data Ownership (PDO) refers to the ownership of data which is created in the process of using digital products and services. PDO defines this data as a resource and a commodity which entail capital. Because this resource is produced by individuals, it should be considered their property.

PDO rights are the rights of the producers of data. They include the right to the market value of their personal data, as well as the right to decide as to the transfer, use, sale and exchange of this asset with companies, organisations, institutions or other third parties. Without consent of the user, in accordance with ownership law, these parties should, therefore, be prevented from exploiting the data associated with a user, and thus also the value derived from it. PDO is currently a speculative term and not embodied by any legal system.


Understanding the principles of PDO begins with considering the "user" (of digital products and services) to be a "producer" of personal data. From this perspective, the user of a product and the producer of personal data are one and the same.

There is no established term to describe the "user-producer" entity. Hence the coinage of the term "producer". Produsage implies that personal data is the result of production on the behalf of the user: a fact produsers should be aware of.

Privacy protection is not data protection

So-called data protection laws, do not protect data. Rather, they protect the privacy of individual users of digital products and services. According to data protection laws, the definition of personal data suggests that data can only be protected if it can be identified with the person by whom it was produced. If, however, data is stored by a company in such a way that its produser is unidentifiable, then the data will no longer be considered "personal" and, thus, is no longer subject to data protection laws.

Such pragmatic application of data protection laws does indeed protect the privacy of individuals, but leaves personal data unacknowledged as a commodity produced by users. Nevertheless, even if unidentifiable with an individual when stored, the origin of data is tied to its producer – the user. Hence PDO considers data to be the property of produsers and seeks to protect it from unauthorized usage and exploitation.

The current design of data protection laws, therefore, leads to the exclusion of users from the value chains of data-driven business models, in which they actively take part as producers of the resource of personal data. However, this resource is in fact fundamental to the very existence of such business models.

Influential types of property

The concept of personal data ownership was created by analyzing relationships between property, individuals and groups of individuals: public ownership, corporate ownership and intellectual property, and the manner in which each understands the ownership of personal data.

Public ownership: Data as an environment

The term "data mining" connotes the discovery of obtaining value from an environment constructed of data. The knowledge and information (patterns, associations or relationships within the data) are the extractable minerals of data-mining. The environment, in the form of land, forests, oil or water, has been owned for centuries by individuals or private and public organizations.

Society has developed laws that prescribe the conditions under which ownership of the environment is possible, and ensure that the rights and responsibilities of owners and society are protected. PDO gives produsers and organisations of produsers the possibility and right to lease the right to mine their data. Profits from the extraction of oil, gold and some other resources in many countries are obliged to contribute to the commonwealth. Discussions around PDO are concerned with the question, whether data production should contribute to private interests or public welfare.

Corporate ownership: Data as a share

If the corporate law is applied to data banks and databases that hold and organize personal data, the data related to a produser becomes a share, a unit of account for various investment and an item of property, that can be sold or transferred. Shareholder's rights, such as the right to dividends and voting rights, contribute to PDO regulations.

Data as intellectual property

A data set can be considered intellectual property in a similar manner to how mixtures of ingredients, such as medicines, can be. If the effect of a mixture is greater than, or different to, the effect of its components, it is a possible subject of Intellectual property. The market value of an assembled data set (such as purchase history, delivery addresses or browser history) associated with a produser is higher than a simple sum of isolated descriptions and facts. An assembled data set is information. Such information is a reference to users purchasing and spending power, also to their tastes, interests and needs to be satisfied.

Indeed, according to intellectual property law produsers are the authors of their data. However, they cannot patent, copyright or otherwise control the usage and transfer of their "data creation". Also, produsers do not have the technical tools to preserve personal data as their asset. Therefore, the value of a produser's data simply merges with the digital products they use. PDO enhances the patent law in such a way that it enables produsers to protect their data as a facet of intellectual property. It also unifies the format in which personal data can be collected and arranged in a set, by the produser, in order to facilitate the donation, leasing or selling to other parties.

This text was written in collaboration with Sveta Goldstein while studying at the HTW Berlin.