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

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Comments on a Copyright Casualty -- Part One

My friend, Blogger Tony Proctor has started a series entitled, "A Copyright Casualty." Tony's ancestor, William Ashbee, was involved in one of the early copyright disputes involving directories. This is an area of the law that particularly affects genealogists and their work. At Tony's invitation, I will be making some comments and observations on his series.

Besides the invitation, I am interested, of course, in the issues involved because for genealogists, the issues Tony raises are directly related to the copyright protection of lists, directories and databases, all of which are used extensively by genealogists. My comments may appear technical and somewhat complicated, but this points out the technical and complicated nature of the entire area of copyright law. As I have said and written in the past, much of what the general community, both genealogists and the larger community believe about copyright is not based on reality but is mostly folklore.

The first installment of A Copyright Casualty, gives an overview of the live of William Ashbee and some of the details of the lawsuits involved in the copyright controversy. The main issues involved a business directory. Tony has provided extensive footnotes and some photos.

Although the sources about copyright law as it pertains to directories are generally available online, they are found well outside the places genealogists would normally research. The question is, how do you know your own ancestors were not involved in a similar case, perhaps criminal or civil, on this or some other subject? The answer is, you may not know about your ancestors' legal battles unless you search outside of the normal genealogical resources. Here are the publications involved in this particular dispute:

Merchants' and Manufacturers' Pocket Directory of London. London: Ashbee, 1868. Presently available at the Duke University Libraries. See

This first referene was the directory printed by Tony's ancestor and the one charged as being a violation of the copyright of the following work:

MORRIS, John Stuart C. The Business Directory of the Manufacturing and Commercial Cities of England. Vol. 3. London. 1862-3. (The Business Directory of London. 1864 [Etc.].). J.S.C. Morris: London, 1862. Copies of this book are available in the British Library. See

Tony gives a citation to the actual case as follows: Morris v. Ashbee (1868) LR [Law Report] 7, Eq. [Equity case] 34. This case is mentioned in free ebook format from Google books.

Great Britain, and G. W. Hemming. The Law Reports [of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting] Equity Cases, Including Bankruptcy Cases, Before the Master of the Rolls, the Vice-Chancellors, and the Chief Judge in Bankruptcy. 1867.

Morris v. Ashbee, Law Rep. 7 Eq. 34 is the citation to the case. Here is the book where another extensive discussion of the case can be found.

Great Britain, and G. W. Hemming. The Law Reports, Chancery Appeal Cases: Including Bankruptcy and Lunacy Cases, Before the Lord Chancellor, and the Court of Appeal in Chancery. London: Printed for the Council of Law Reporting by William Clowes and Sons, 1866.

Most of these books are available in complete digital copies online. I no longer have access to so I cannot run a complete list of all the cases that have cited Morris v. Ashbee and get an idea of the importance of this particular case so that makes finding the cases only slightly harder but a lot more time consuming.

In order to understand the relevance of this discussion, I will fast-forward to the present time. In the United States, the law is very complicated. A good review of the subject is in the U.S. Supreme Court case of  Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).

I will continue to comment on the issues in Tony's posts in further installments of this series.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks James. I noticed that you'd found a microfilm version of Ashbee's directory at 'Duke University Library' -- I admit that I didn't see that. It's a pretty rare publication so I may see if I can get some of it reproduced.