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

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Who owns your genealogy? and other misconceptions

Does anyone own information? Can I copyright my genealogy? If I post my genealogy online, who owns it? These and many other similar questions seem to float around in the genealogical community. In answering these kinds of questions it is important to realize that we are not talking about the ownership of physical property, such as land or an automobile, but of intellectual property such as artistic creations, inventions, writings and such. Any who has ever purchased a home will recognize that ownership is a complicated business. Intellectual property ownership is even more complicated in some ways, due to the transitory nature of the property rights and the property itself.  Here is a summary of Intellectual Property from Wikipedia:
Intellectual property (IP) is a term referring to a number of distinct types of creations of the mind for which property rights are recognized—and the corresponding fields of law. Under intellectual property law, owners are granted certain exclusive rights to a variety of intangible assets, such as musical, literary, and artistic works; discoveries and inventions; and words, phrases, symbols, and designs. Common types of intellectual property include copyrights, trademarks, patents, industrial design rights and trade secrets
in some jurisdictions.
Copyright is a statutory right which means that the right is created by a statute passed by a governing authority, usually the national government. Generally, works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship is not subject to copyright.  Information such as names, dates and relationships is not usually subject to copyright or any other claims of intellectual property. For example, in a directory listing such as a telephone book, the names and telephone numbers are not subject to copyright, although the layout of the book and the advertising may be.

In genealogy, names and dates are not subject to copyright. original works, notes, stories, and such, may be subject to a claim of copyright unless they pre-date the copyright law coverage. In the U.S., the longest copyright claims go back about 75 years. Technically, every year another year's worth of original material loses its copyright status. This annual loss of copyright will only continue for a short while, because in 1954 and again in 1971 the U.S. ratified the Universal Copyright Convention from UNESCO extending copyright protection. The time limit for protection was extended again in 1988 with the Berne Convention Implementation Act and the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 with removed the requirement for renewal. With all of the changes, Copyright coverage now exists for over 100 years and for most of us, the term will be much longer than our lifetimes. Here is a chart from the Wikimedia Commons showing the time frame of Copyright:

What makes this area of the law difficult is problem that portions of a work may be subject to copyright, while other portions are not. There is a real challenge in determining if a particular work is subject to a copyright claim and if so, who owns the claim. This may be especially true in a genealogical file, where some of the information was copied from other sources and much of the material may be lacking in attribution. Republication of a work does not confer any added copyright protection. If you publish information and you have an expectation that it will be covered by copyright, it is very wise to become educated in this area.

1 comment:

  1. But mainly copyright is there to protect authors from losing money. The question then would be is there money to be lost in genealogy? Or any significant money? I would answer no. What is lost is honor and integrity on the parts of individuals who do not properly acknowledge the work of others or make it appear that the work is there own. Sometimes this is done deliberately, although mostly it is done ignorantly. Someone reads an article and uploads the information to their database. They consequently upload that database to an online tree or give to a cousin who does the same. Somewhere in that transaction the attribution is lost. Suddenly the whole world now downloads the information from an online tree oblivious to its origins.

    Although dates and public records may not be copyrighted, how that information is arranged and first put together in order to prove the relationships, should be. However, again, since there is no money involved (how great if you could copyright a proven relationship and someone had to pay you every time they downloaded it!), the only thing at stake is an acknowledgement that your hard work made that person's download possible. Sadly this is not the case. I think genealogists in general and online genealogists in particular stand on the shoulders of researchers they do not acknowledge nor thank properly.