Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A copyright cautionary tale

A friend of mine received a threatening E-mail message. She had been researching cemetery records in Oklahoma and found a Website with a list of names from a cemetery removal project. Apparently, the Army Corps of Engineers, in building a dam for a large reservoir, had excavated and moved an entire cemetery. The Website had incorporated a list of the people in the moved graves. My friend decided to republish the list on one of the major gravesite finder Websites.

As a result of copying the information, she received the threatening E-mail, accusing her of copyright violation, dishonest conduct and making a number of claims about her morality. The Website where she obtained the information posted a huge warning, in red, telling anyone that they would violate copyright law if they were even tempted to use the information in another publication.

When the story was related to me, along with a copy of the E-mail exchange, my first question was about the source of the information. I immediately saw a problem with the claimed copyright; the information came from the Army Corps of Engineers, a government entity. I told my friend to contact the Army about the list.

The next day she said she had talked to the Army and they would not release the information to her without a substantial payment. I reminded her about the Freedom of Information Act, and told her to ask for the information again using that language. She reported back in a day or two that the Army had immediately sent her the full list, free of charge.

In examining the list from the Army, she discovered that the Oklahoma Website had done nothing more than copy, verbatim, the government list. Government documents are not subject to copyright, neither are lists of facts or otherwise public information, such as births and deaths, including burial information. I pointed out that the Website was way out of line and uninformed to have claimed any copyright interest in the first place.

Although there are a more than enough instances when legitimate copyright interests are infringed, there are also instances where people use the threat of litigation over copyright to gain an advantage where none legally exists. I understand that all of the copyright claims have subsequently been removed from site. My friend published the information on the grave location Website and cited the source, correctly, as the Army Corps of Engineers.

Be careful to understand your real rights before threatening someone with litigation or worse.

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