BACKGROUND: As biological disciplines extend into the 'big data' world, they will need a names-based infrastructure to index and interconnect distributed data. The infrastructure must have access to all names of all organisms if it is to manage all information. Those who compile lists of species hold different views as to the intellectual property rights that apply to the lists. This creates uncertainty that impedes the development of a much-needed infrastructure for sharing biological data in the digital world. FINDINGS: The laws in the United States of America and European Union are consistent with the position that scientific names of organisms and their compilation in checklists, classifications or taxonomic revisions are not subject to copyright. Compilations of names, such as classifications or checklists, are not creative in the sense of copyright law. Many content providers desire credit for their efforts. CONCLUSIONS: A 'blue list' identifies elements of checklists, classifications and monographs to which intellectual property rights do not apply. To promote sharing, authors of taxonomic content, compilers, intermediaries, and aggregators should receive citable recognition for their contributions, with the greatest recognition being given to the originating authors. Mechanisms for achieving this are discussed.