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

Sunday, March 29, 2009

No Copyright for Gravemarkers

I had several inquiries recently about whether copyright law applied to gravemarkers. As a result, since I have been an attorney for more than thirty years and done considerable work in the area of intellectual property, I researched the issue online in Westlaw.

My research showed that the issue of the ownership or copyright of information on gravemarkers has likely never gone to court in either the state or Federal court systems of the entire United States. Given the absolutely ridiculous things people go to court with, this is somewhat surprising. First of all, most of the information in the cemetery pertains to dead people, some long dead, and secondly, putting information on a gravemarker publishes the information to the world with no expectation of privacy.

I assume that a design of a gravemarker or a drawing on a gravemarker might be protected by copyright, but apparently the issue has never come up. With the increase in cremations, gravemarkers may become less used in the future, especially if people start to believe that their privacy is invaded by having a gravemarker for their relatives.

Coincidentally, the same issue came up recently in a news story in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader. Some of the blogs commented on the story. Apparently, in the Old Union Christian Church Cemetery on Russell Cave Road, genealogist David Shannon found gravemarkers for several relatives, including his great-grandparents Julia and Lloyd Harp. The Church tried to prevent him from publishing the information to an independent research Web site,, where he's posted the information on the 475 documented burials collected and a photograph of each visible stone.

To quote the news article:
In February, the church's governing board sent Shannon a letter telling him "to cease publishing pictures of stones ... not part of your family because it is sharing family information without their consent."

Old Union's minister, the Rev. Scott Winkler, said the church's position is that Shannon's actions are an invasion of privacy. "If you're going to publish other people's private information you need to get their permission," he said. "Any cemetery has to protect rights of people buried there."

The article reports that the church sells a $10 book with all the tombstone information in it, but no pictures, compiled for an Eagle Scout project several years ago with the help of the church historian.

In both cases, in my opinion, there is no copyright issue at all. Since birth and death information is almost always public records information, the relatives of a deceased person have no ownership rights in the information on the gravemarker. Also, there is no issue of invasion of privacy, you cannot "invade the privacy" of a dead person.

I hope incidents like this one reported in Kentucky don't start a trend of people claiming ownership rights to the information contained on gravemarkers.


  1. Is it against the law to publish a book containing pictures of the tombstones and information for a minimal profit? Just curious.

  2. James' commentary is spot-on. Copyright is a very complex issue. If you read the US Copyright Office's explanations of copyrights, it would seem that a grave marker would not be copyrightable.

    Actual facts can't be copyrighted, so the dates and names are not copyrightable. The copyright of a photo of a grave marker would belong to the person who took the picture.

    Quotes, designs, and art carved on a grave marker could be copyrighted, but the copyright for the art would belong to the artist or writer.

    The fact that the marker is permanently installed in a public location would probably negate most claims to copyright by the artist who carved the stone.

    So even if a grave marker is legally a sculpture or a non-copyrightable "useful object," you should be able to use your own photos in a book.

    This is all on the Copyright office website, but I'm sure a copyright lawyer would have more specific answers to questions.