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

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Books, Ownership, and Copyright

Let's suppose you look online and see a newly published book. After reading a few reviews, you decide to buy the book and being a traditionalist, you order a hard-bound copy for your personal library. You pay for the book using your online account or with a credit card. Within one or two days, the book arrives at your door. It turns out to be a wonderful book and you enjoy reading it. Do you now "own" your book? Surprisingly, that is a serious and not a silly question. If you do not own the book outright, what are the limitations on your "ownership?" Do any of these limitations change if you had purchased an electronic version of the same book? If you own the hardback copy of "your" book, do you have to pay for an ebook copy of the same book?

The answers to all these questions are pertinent to the crisis in the free flow of information in our worldwide society. As genealogists, we bump into this problem on a regular basis whether we are aware of it or not. Here is an example from the Books section of the website.
I have used this notice as an example recently but I am returning to the subject of the previous post. What does this notice mean and why have the book listed online if it cannot be viewed? I view copyrighted books online all the time. I use a library app such as or the and read the entire book. What is the main difference between checking a physical book out of a library and reading a digital copy of the book from a library website? In both instances, I only have "possession" of the content of the book for a limited period of time, usually two weeks.

Back to the issue of owning a book. When you purchase a book that is subject to a claim of copyright, even though I have purchased a book, the content and use of the content is still not under my control. For example, I could not reproduce my "purchased" copy of the book and sell it. Technically, what you purchase when you purchase a book subject to copyright is a limited license. The terms of your license are contained in the provisions of the U.S. Copyright Act and all of the cases decided by all of the Federal Courts on copyright in the United States.

There are some real property analogies. Even if you "own" the largest interest in real property called a "fee simple" ownership, you are still subject to real estate taxes from various government agencies. If you fail to pay your taxes, you may ultimately lose your real property. You may disagree with the government's right to assess your property with taxes, but there is almost nothing you can do about it.

The main problem with the government limitations on books and other intellectual property is that the limitations that were originally designed to apply only for a limited period of time now extend for more than the lifetime of anyone now living. So, if you purchase a book published in 2018, you will die before the copyright expires. In fact, probably most of your children and even your grandchildren will still be subject to the copyright. The current copyright term is 70 years after the death of author. but if a work has corporate authorship, the term is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. If you have a particularly long-lived author, you might have a copyright that lasts for almost 150 years. What other parts of our government do you know that might last that long?

In reference to the notice above, I have no idea what it means or why it would even appear. Obviously, a copyright does not prevent a book from being viewed online. However, the paper copy of a book and the ebook copy of the same book can be separately copyright protected. In the case of most of the books pertinent to genealogy, there is very little benefit from copyright protection. If you publish a personal family history, for example, yes, you have a copyright. But why would you want to protect the contents from being copied? If you think you are going to write the great American novel, perhaps, but considering the literary value of most of the family histories I have looked at, I don't think commercial viability is an issue.


  1. My understanding of that notice on FamilySearch Books is that the Family History Library has a license for just one "reader" at a time, just like a physical library. When the current "reader" "returns" the book, it can be viewed by another reader.

    A problem may occur if someone is the current "reader" but doesn't close out the "reading" window for a long period of time. I hate it when this happens.

    Try it early in the morning before Utah and California wake up.

    1. That could be part of the problem. I have explored that issue. But if that is the case, then they should initiate a system of placing a hold so you are notified when the book becomes available and also an automatic check in procedure so they don't get permanently unavailable.

  2. Does this have anything to do with the checkbox "Keep me logged in for 2 weeks"?

    1. Not directly that I know of, but you need to be registered and signed in to see some of the content. Other content is only available for view from a computer that is logged in on the Family History Center Portal, i.e. in a Family History Center or Library.