Saturday, August 22, 2009

A short note on copying items on the Web

Some bloggers, even those with genealogical interests, apparently feel that anything posted on the Web is fair game for copying without even courtesy of attribution. Not only is this practice readily apparent from reading posts, but it is lauded by some as a good practice. I try to make sure that any time I copy something from a Web source that I give credit to the originator by providing a link, putting the material in quotes or indenting it to show that it is a quote. If I fail to do this, I would expect to be notified immediately of my mistake by a reader.

Sometimes, it is not evident that the material used in a blog post is copied. No one could really know unless they happened on the original source. Sometimes the material copied is clearly outside the realm of copyright protection, but still not original. In all these cases there is an ethical duty to disclose your sources. Plagiarism is no less plagiarism simply because it is difficult to detect.

It is clear that in the electronic world, copyright issues are blurred. On the Internet where material can move rapidly and be copied literally thousands or millions of times in a very short while, plagiarism and copyright violations may be difficult to detect. U.S. Copyright laws have, for the most part, failed to keep up adequately with the issues raised by rampant copying.

Copyright laws are extensively available. The U.S. Copyright office, has explanations and forms for all kinds of copyright issues. You may also wish to read the Statement of Marybeth Peters, The Register of Copyrights before the Committee on the Judiciary United States House of Representatives of the 111th Congress 1st Session February 25, 2009. Although this article deals mostly with television broadcasting, there is much here that applies to other media and the article illustrates the difficulty the legislatures are having in adapting the law to current conditions.

One way to slow the growth of rampant copying is to comment when a blogger posts something that is copied without proper attribution.

Now, what about old records and documents? It isn't plagiarism to copy an old document and make it available on the Web. Likewise, it isn't a violation of copyright to make old records (pre-1920) on the Web. Some people in their zeal to claim credit for something that isn't their's or to try to make some money, claim an ownership rights in documents and records that are certainly not subject to copyright. This area of the law is very complex especially when it comes to claiming a copyright to a certain format or design. Can I take all my Great-grandmother's old letters and put them in a book or online and claim a copyright to the content? I will address that issue in another post, but the answer is a qualified "it depends." It is clear, however, that you cannot legally prevent someone else from copying the content of the letters, although some would try to do so.

One difficult question in our society, which we face as genealogists, is who "owns" old records. Can governments claim ownership of their old records? Can churches claim ownership of their old records? I know they do so every day, but how is their ownership interest established other than by force? As in, I have the records so therefore you must pay to see or use them.

I would appreciate comments and questions.


  1. Thank you for this very interesting and informative post. I felt a pang of guilt. In my attempts to source and credit everything I use in my blog, I realized I mistakenly failed to source information I learned six or seven years ago. Thinking since I now know something, I needn’t reach back to where I got it from originally, and inform the reader.

    This family history blogging continues to be quite an experience. A journey I’m enjoying. I thank you for all the new information you provide here. I understand it better than I did three months ago.

  2. It would be interesting to hear a British side to this copyright issue as the laws are very different to those of the US. The British Government has copyright over everything it holds.
    Copying anything, whether from the net or elsewhere, without attributing the source is, in my opinion, morally, if not legally, wrong. If secondary information is not checked it also often means that erroneous information is passed on and eventually is accepted as fact.

  3. In the UK the situation is actually not too bad when it comes to archival records in Crown copyright. Everything in the National Archives which is open for research, under Crown copyright and was not published prior to deposit, has a copyright waiver attached to it, with the exception of unpublished records of the Ordnance Survery and Met Office. The same is true of BMD certificates (at least in England and Wales).

    The waivers are not too onerous, requiring attribution, forbidding deceptive uses such as passing off and generally allowing you to do anything with the materials within those terms.

    In the UK all unpublished materials are under copyright under the end of 2039 (50 years after the passing of the last big piece of copyright legislation as a transitional time). After then unpublished Crown copyright materials will come out of copyright 125 years after creation. Published Crown copyright materials come out of copyright 50 years after publication.

    Non-Crown copyright records have the usual pma+70 years term, subject to unpublished materials not coming out of copyright until 2039 as mentioned above. In the UK there is no distinction between ordinary works and works for hire in term length. Anonymous pieces have a 70 year from creation copyright term.