Lately, the term has come to be applied to other types of online activities, particularly making claims based on threats of legal action. One such area that will undoubtedly impact the online genealogical community is the area of copyright trolls. According to Wikipedia, here is the definition:
Copyright troll is a pejorative term for a party that enforces copyrights it owns for purposes of making money through litigation, in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic, generally without producing or licensing the works it owns for paid distribution. Critics object to the activity because they believe it does not encourage the production of creative works, but instead makes money through the inequities and unintended consequences of high statutory damages provisions in copyright laws intended to encourage creation of such works.This can become a serious business. In some cases, cited in the Wikipedia article, entities put up images for the express purpose of laying the basis for a legal claim of copyright against Google and others.
This activity comes extremely close to entities, including museums and libraries, that lay copyright claim to documents in their possession that are clearly not covered by copyright because they have long since passed into the public domain. They sometimes use arguments such as licensing and other contract theories to assert their "ownership" of the documents. This issue continues to bother me since the time I found a library that had two albums of my Great-grandmother's photographs and refused me access to the documents on the grounds of copyright violation when I owned and had in my possession my Grandmother's copyright. By this I mean the actual document. The library also raised the issue of a possible violation of the privacy of the people in the photographs when such a claim was entirely personal with the individuals depicted and could not be asserted by a library.
This whole issue is like a cloud hanging over the genealogical community. I regularly get questions about whether or not a certain document can be copied or used online from a researcher who is concerned about copyright violation. Whenever I write about this topic, I always get comments back from readers who are defending their own "copyright claims" and utterly outraged that I would question their right to do so.
Here is my position. Do not threaten litigation in the United States unless you can be reasonably sure of the following:
- You have a valid, enforceable copyright claim.
- You have complied with the provisions of Title 17, Section 411 and 412 of the United States Code as applicable and registered your copyright.
- You have the financial means to pursue a claim in the Federal District Court.
A copyright claim is not just a convenient hammer to use for your own purposes. If you want to play in the copyright arena, you most certainly need to know the rules of the game. I am not encouraging copyright infringement. I am merely pointing out that before you get all huffy about your copyright claims, you ought to take the time to educate yourself as to what is really involved in making such a claim.