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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, March 16, 2012

Copied copyright?

What is original? If I spend hours and hours compiling a list of genealogy resources for my blog or website, is all my hard work rewarded with copyright protection? And what about all that time I spend doing my own research? Surely all those hard won names and dates are covered by copyright? Right? Wrong on both counts.

But, you say, I put prominent copyright notices on every single page. Doesn't that protect my work? Nope, wrong again. but with all things in the law, it isn't that simple. Copyright law in the U.S. (and most other countries) only applies to ORIGINAL works. If you compile lists of information (facts like links to websites or book or article titles) the facts, including names, dates etc., are not subject to copyright. Think about it, if you simply mentioned a famous person in a note or blog, do you want to face a copyright claim to the person's name? But I find a lot of genealogy bloggers and websites that think they own the facts they have gathered including the names of their ancestors.

There are parts of any blog or website that may be subject to copyright, but coverage is limited to those items, including design, that are original. Finding a link on the Internet and pasting it into your website does not constitute original work. If you write a story in your own words, it is covered, if you copy a name or date, those are facts and not covered. Your beautifully designed pink border might be covered but the names in your pedigree are not. Since the U.S. adopted the Berne Convention in 1989 there is no legal requirement to post a copyright notice. All original works created in fixed form are subject to copyright whether or not any actual notice appears. Only the parts of your work that are original are subject to your claim of copyright.

When I hear someone insist that their work is subject to copyright because they "put a notice on every page," it shows me dramatically that they know next to nothing about copyright. The irony of the whole copyright folklore is that people who have the least reason to worry about someone copying their work are the ones most worried about preserving their copyright. Ownership is a powerful force. The mentality is "what I work on, I own." Lack of understanding of copyright reinforces that natural tendency to claim "ownership", sometimes to the point of being ridiculous. I have seen people who had a book they wrote that no one in their right mind would copy, be so worried about someone copying their work, that they won't even let anyone read it! And do not think that this is an exaggeration.

 Ownership is a cultural/economic concept reinforced by traditional law. Copyright dates back to early privileges and monopolies granted to printers of books under the British Statute of Anne of 1710. This early grant of a monopoly ends up with genealogists thinking they own their own ancestors' pedigree.

This post isn't about why we shouldn't have copyright laws. It is about the folklore and misinformation that surround what is a purely legal right granted by somewhat vague statutes. There are no fundamental human rights, as we have come to understand the term, associated with the economic protection provided by the copyright laws of the U.S. and the other countries that recognize The Berne Convention. You do not have an unalienable right to copyright. It is an economic right of ownership that can be bought, sold and rented just like a car.

In the U.S. the term of a copyright has been extended to the point that none of us alive will ever see any of the current works pass into the public domain by virtue of the statute of limitations. Maybe there is some basic logic to this kind of expansive protection, but I have a hard time understanding what it is. The rights do not depend on the overall economic value of the work. My blog posts have the same protection as a novel that sells 5 million copies.

I guess I have had just one too many people threaten to enforce their copyright in court, without even the vaguest concept of what their rights might be. If you copy some one else, your work is not original and cannot be subject to a claim for copyright. This is especially true if you copy a work in the public domain. Incorporating public domain works into your own and putting a copyright notice at the bottom of the page does not give you a copyright.

Genealogy is about cooperation, sharing and mutual help. It is not about ownership.


  1. Thank you for this. I hope it does some good. I think copyright is very misunderstood.

  2. Thank you for this insightful post, and we agree that more people need to understand that copyright is, as you say, “an economic right of ownership that can be bought, sold and rented just like a car.” Whether its photos or words, copyright law can protect a variety of things, but the burden is on the creator to register that material with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to receive that security.