Sharon Howell | Dec 3, 2018

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

Eventually, you, or perhaps someone close to you, will want to post online or publish that family history you’ve compiled. If you have been thorough, your work will be a credit to your efforts and comply with all the legal requirements that will make it endure as a legacy for generations. To prepare, you’ll want to become familiar with issues surrounding copyrights—your sources' rights as well as your own.   

RootsTech 2018 presenter Janice M. Sellers weaves many essential facts and lots of examples into her breakout session entitled Online Does Not Equal Free: Copyright Issues for Genealogy. Following an interactive format, she explains and illustrates what you need to know.

What is copyright protection, and what does it protect?

Sellers’s quotation from the law says copyright “is a form of protection provided by the laws of the US and other countries to authors of original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” Sellers says that covers many things besides literary works. Copyright includes dramatic, pictorial, audiovisual, and architectural work (like tombstones), among other things. 

Copyright excludes trademarks, patents, slogans, or symbols (which are covered by other laws) and grants some very specific rights for the copyright holder. It doesn’t mean that you can “copyright your family,” but any narrative or a graphical representation you create belongs to you and is copyrighted. No one can legally reproduce your work, profit from it, or take credit for it. 

What do I need to do to copyright my work?

Merely creating your family history “in a tangible form” gives you a copyright, whether you register it or not. You don’t need to, but if you register your copyright at, you’ll be entitled to sue for damages as well as “lost profits” should someone violate your copyright and you choose to litigate the infringement.

The names, dates, and places in your family history are not copyrightable, nor is common information in public documents. The facts are the facts, but how you present those facts wrapped in a unique wrapper of your own creation entitles you to claim a copyright for the work you have done. On the flipside, Sellers warns that when using materials belonging to others, you should “not just willy-nilly start using stuff.” 

What do I need to do to comply with the copyright laws when I want to use the material of others?

Laws concerning copyrights have changed over time and will continue to change. They vary from place to place and from country to country. They are subject to different circumstances, and they are very specific. However, while listening to Sellers, you will come away with the sense there is much that is subject to debate and discussion.

Without getting too exhaustive, copyrights take into consideration if the author or creator is an individual, the government, or an institution; whether a work is published or unpublished; if and when it “entered the public forum"; and what use is being made of it. As a genealogist, you’ll want to investigate all these issues and try to find the copyright owner before using material online as a normal part of your research process.

When may I quote sources and when do I need to ask permission?

You can use the facts you find online, such as a death date on a tombstone, but you cannot freely pluck the image of the tombstone off a website and put it in your book without asking permission. If you want to include an image from a site, you have to ask the website owner. If you find something in a book, you can easily find who owns the copyright. It might be the author, or more likely the publisher. If it is in a magazine or newsletter, contact the editor. 

The copyright owner may ask you to pay to reprint material, but more likely the owner will allow you to use material if you give proper credit. If it’s a picture, that might be simply stating, “Used with permission of.…”

Whatever the source, Sellers advises family historians to look for the copyright owner, see what provisions are stipulated for using the material, and ask before using.

Janice Sellers

Sharon Howell

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