Sharon Howell | Dec 10, 2018

Online Does Not Equal Free: Copyright Issues for Genealogy (Part Two)

With the sheer volume of family history information online so easily accessible, it can be baffling to decipher the truth of copyrights. RootsTech 2018 presenter Janice M. Sellers dispels much of the confusion and answers many key questions in her presentation Online Does Not Equal Free: Copyright Issues for Genealogy. This article continues with issues and answers surrounding copyrights—your sources' rights as well as your own.

What are “fair use” provisions of the copyright laws?

Sellers explains that according to the law, "fair use" means that if you use someone else's work, use must be “limited” and must be “for a transformative purpose.” Not everyone agrees what that means, but teaching is usually one of the approved uses if it’s a “small amount.”

For a family historian, that depends on “the nature of the copyrighted work itself” and “how much you use.” Sellers says the rule of 3 generally applies: “If you use 3 or more words verbatim from some work, you should probably put it in quotation marks and list a citation.” She goes on to say, “If you use 3 or more paragraphs from a book, you should probably get permission before just putting it into your book and giving it a quote and crediting it.” 

Where do I go to find out who owns a copyright for material I want to use?

You can’t always assume the person who put something online owns the copyright. Finding the copyright owner is important, often difficult, and depends on when the work entered the “public forum.”  Sellers says, “People have sometimes taken old things and reprinted them and claim copyright, [and] that doesn’t necessarily mean they really have a copyright. . . .” You’ll have to sort through those issues by doing your investigation.

Sellers recommends a few online resources to help your investigation:

What happens if I violate someone else’s copyright?

At the very least, you can get a “cease and desist” letter from someone’s attorney or an email from the copyright holder telling you that have used their material without permission. At the other extreme, the copyright owner can sue you, and that person doesn’t need to warn you before doing so. Sometimes that can be costly, but if the material circulates among family members and never gets in the public forum, Sellers admits that “the copyright police are never going to show up.” But if your work is published as a book or on a website, then copyright is something to think about.

Probably most of the information you use in your history is already in the public domain because it is the basic facts about your family, but anything else (photographs, artwork, etc.) comes under copyright protections. According to Sellers, the biggest deterrent to litigation is to obtain permission. 

What about material from social media, blog posts, or family Facebook groups?

Sellers touched on the nature of the web and ease of downloading or copying things, especially from social channels. She argues that is why “we have this perception—anything on the web must be free. . . .” She reminds users that photos, blogs, and even email are copyrighted, and she tells family historians to always check—whenever possible—to find who owns the material, where it comes from, and to ask permission before using. 

To learn more, listen to Sellers's entire presentation, make note of key points, and investigate sources with copyrights in mind before using the material you find online.

Watch the full presentation here.

Sharon Howell

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