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

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Genealogy, Social Networking and Copyright

What part of a genealogist's work is subject to copyright law? What effect does posting an otherwise covered work on Facebook, Google+ or in a blog have on those otherwise valid copyright claims? Why would a genealogist care about copyright anyway?

Rather than go back through basic copyright law again, I refer everyone to the U.S. Copyright Office. This website has an adequate coverage of basic copyright law and a copy of the entire copyright statutes from the United States Code. For those of you outside of the United States, I would refer you to your own local copyright law and regulations. For example, if you search on "copyright Australia" you will get a link to the Australian Copyright Council, with similar resources.

Unfortunately, despite the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the law concerning copying and disseminating copyrighted works online is in a state of flux and is somewhat confused. There is a sizable gap between the public perception of copyright protection and the reality of the law. To see this issue graphically demonstrated, all you have to do is go onto for about ten seconds and look at the stream of photos. You will see a plethora of copyrighted photos of products and people copied without any semblance of adherence to copyright laws.

So, where does the average genealogist fit into copyright law? I have seen some very fuzzy applications of the whole copyright concept with people claiming a copyright where none exists and copying copyrighted material without permission. Here are some of the common problems put in the form of questions:

Question: My grandmother gave me a box of old photographs taken in the 1800s. Can I put these online and if I do, can I claim a copyright to the photographs?

Answer: Only the originator of the work or his or her heirs can claim a copyright. Although a interest in a copyright can be bought and sold and inherited, normally any right to the enforcement of the copyright absent a clear transfer of interest lies with the originator. In this case, because of the limitations of the effective time period, these old photos are very likely in the public domain and adding your own claim of copyright is ineffective to assert such an interest. Why would you want to try and stop family members for making copies of the photographs?

Question: I found a really interesting blog post on scanning old photos and so I reprinted it in our local genealogy society newsletter. Is that proper under copyright law?

Answer: Assuming that you were not the originator of the work, you have violated the originator's copyright. The proper procedure would be to obtain permission to incorporate the blog post in the newsletter. Absent permission, it shouldn't be included.

Question: If I don't make a profit from reproducing items posted online or use them for educational purposes, am I still violating the owners' copyrights?

Answer: Whether or not your use is for free or for profit has no bearing on whether or not the work is covered by copyright law.

Question: If I give attribution to the author of the work, do I still have to worry about copyright?

Answer: Yes, unless the work is clearly covered by some sort of license, such as the Creative Commons License, then your attribution is nice but ineffective to prevent a claim for violation of copyright.

Now where does this whole system break down? The ease of copying works on the Web is so great that you may have your work copied hundreds to millions of times in a matter of a few hours or days. You many never learn of the extent of the violations of your copyright. On the other hand, you may not care. You may intentionally put things online and expect people to copy them.

One of the common areas where genealogists fail to understand copyright is claiming a copyright to facts and information. Simply because you copy information out of and turn it into a book does not mean your work is protected by copyright.


  1. My question is regarding photos of grave markers in Those who upload photos to the site are only supposed to use their own photographs, not copyrighted ones. But what if I find a photo on the site, and want to use in in Is it considered copyrighted just because someone posted it on findagrave or can I copy it and use it?

    1. I hope my post today helps answer this question, but the real answer is more complex since there is an issue about whether or not gravemarkers, as such, can be copyrighted. The person taking the photograph "owns" the copyright to the photograph. The real question is whether or not the copyright is somehow transferred to FindAGrave or lost by posting the photo online. If you post a photograph taken by some one else, then that person "owns" the copyright depending on the circumstances of course.

    2. Multiple things at work here. Read the TOS/Community guidelines at FindAGrave. You'll find they make no claim to the pictures posted there. Rights are retained by the photo submitter. Go to the profile of the photo submitter. You'll often find they explicitly give or withhold their permission for your use of the photo outside FindAGrave.

      The second aspect of this is with Ancestry. When you upload a photo there you warrent you 'own' the photo and have the right to 'give' your ownership right to Ancestry. Ancestry then has the right to use your posted photos for their own commercial use without further permission from you. So, if you don't hold the copyright to the image you shouldn't be posting it on Ancestry.

      Finally, Creative Commons Licenses most often state explicitly that they are for NON-Commercial use. That means you may not upload images to Ancestry even from sites with CCL.