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Genealogy/Copyright issues

Hi all:

At the risk of *reopening a can of worms* I am forwarding a message from a
Rootsweb list "Missing Links, Vol 4, No. 39".  There are some very good
issues covered in this article that have recently been discussed on this

Hope this is taken with the good feelings it's intended with.

Amber (St. Clair) Dalakas


by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG <rwr-editors@rootsweb.com>

Disguised as the nicest people on earth, many genealogists are
nevertheless thieves, plagiarists, and copyright infringers.
Some are high-tech robbers using computers, mice, and Internet
Service Providers to steal intellectual property. Some try to
hide their crimes under mantles of excuses such as:

o I thought everything on the Internet was FREE.
o I'm just looking up information for FREE. I don't charge
  people anything.
o You can't copyright facts and that's what genealogy is.
o Genealogy was meant to be shared.
o This is information about my family and I'm entitled to it.
o Reproduction of copyrighted materials was intended to keep
  people from distributing information for profit.
o Authors are too greedy and should be grateful they are
  getting free advertising on the Web.

No matter how easy it is to copy from the Web, a book, or a CD,
taking another's work is wrong. Access to a great deal of
genealogical material may be free, but that does not give you a
right to copy and use someone's intellectual property -- without
his or her permission. If you offer to do lookups for others
(whether you charge or not) in books or CDs that you own, you
may be guilty of copyright infringement. Obtain the author's
permission first -- you might be surprised at how gracious most
authors are. Broderbund, one of the largest producers of
genealogical CDs, clearly notes in all of its CD booklets that
it considers the following wholesale sharing a copyright

o Systematically making a CD freely available to more than one
  person at a time.
o Systematically make large parts of a CD's contents freely
  available to others.
o Uploading all or part of a CD's contents onto an electronic
  bulletin board.
o Circulating a printout taken straight off the CD.

The USGenWeb Project offers four "golden rules of copyright" at

o Materials older than 1923 are absolutely safe. (They are in
  the public domain.)
o Relaying FACTS is OK. (This does not mean copying.)
o If the use of material created by someone else diminishes the
  market value of that person's work, then the copyright has
  been violated.
o Getting written (not e-mail) permission from the author/
  publisher is the surest way to ensure that you are not
  violating copyright law.

So what is copyrightable? Some like to argue that genealogy is
just facts, and facts can not be copyrighted or that the
information came from public records and therefore can not be
copyrighted. It is true that original public records in the U.S.
cannot be copyrighted, but a compilation of them can be. The law
recognizes the right of transcribers and compilers to be
compensated and have their work protected. If you don't think
this is work, transcribe some 17th-century Virginia court
records or decipher some 19th-century ship passenger lists.
Accumulated genealogical information, to the extent that it is
an expression, can be protected by copyright, but the actual
facts in the information cannot be protected.

If authors quit compiling records and writing books because of
copyright infringements, what will happen to genealogy? It is
true that the basic facts about your ancestors -- name, birth
date and place, spouse, date and place of the marriage, death
date and place, are not copyrightable. However, adding any kind
of narration to the basic genealogical facts gives rise to a
copyright in the creative portion of the work. See Gary B.
Hoffman's article "Who Owns Genealogy? Cousins and Copyrights"

Does living far from genealogical repositories, having a
physical limitation, being a certain age, or being in reduced
circumstances entitle us to any special privileges of copying
or using someone's material? Is it ever right to take anything
that belongs to someone else? Would your ancestors be proud of
your answers and your actions?

For more information about copyright issues see:

10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained by Brad Templeton.

The United States Copyright Office

Julie Case Julia_Case@rootsweb.com
unless specifically stated otherwise, PROVIDED: (1) the reprint
is used for non-commercial, educational purposes; and (2) a copy
of this notice appears at the end of the article:
    Written by <author's name, e-mail address, and URL, if
given>. Previously published by Julia M. Case and Myra Vanderpool
Gormley, CG, Missing Links: RootsWeb's Genealogy Journal, Vol. 4,
No. 39, 22 September 1999. RootsWeb: <http://www.rootsweb.com/>

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