There is much debate about copyright in genealogy, especially since so much information can now be accessed via the internet. Many genealogy researchers who have worked years on their ancestry become upset when they discover the research they spent years and considerable money acquiring is now on the internet because they shared it with someone.
I thought I’d write a few thoughts I’ve acquired from various sources about this problem. I’m not a lawyer so the comments below are my own personal opinions so please see a copyright attorney if you have any questions concerning copyright.
You can’t copyright your gr-gr-grandmother’s birth date even if you are the only one who knows it.
At first glance, this statement seems ludicrous, but it points out a major complaint that arises in genealogy. Researchers often spend their personal time, interviewing, searching documents, books court records, etc. for facts they can document about their ancestors history. But these same facts, no matter how hard and how much money was spent in acquiring them, cannot be copyrighted.
The United States Copyright law website states the following.
Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.
Did you notice the words original works of authorship? They are important. If you go to the FAQ page on the website, the second question is:
What does copyright protect?
and the answer is:
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.
The way I interpret this statement is:
Copyright covers original work, not discovered facts. However, it does cover the way these facts or ideas are expressed. In other words, a genealogy book and the way it is written/expressed is covered, but the facts contained within are not covered by copyright. No one can go to a copy machine, make a copy of a genealogy book and then put their name on it, saying it was their own, but they can use the facts inside for their own personal creative expression.
Actually, this is a good thing. If the copyright law protected facts, then the only person who could legally write an article would be the first person to discover the facts. Everyone else would be in violation of the copyright law and all other historical and/or news stories could not be published. This would include newspapers and TV reporters.
As genealogists and historians we need to think of ourselves as reporters of the past, then the copyright laws make more sense.
Newspaper and TV reporters spend many hours, considerable effort and expense seeking, researching, and writing articles about news events, and sometimes even historical events. All report the same facts of important events in similar stories and they cannot claim copyright in regard to the facts.
Of course, the way they write or express the facts in a written or oral form is copyrighted. But even this is not always the case. Sometimes the very words the first reporters use when covering an event are copied by other reporters as revealed in this video. While funny, it is apparently legal or at least allowed.
Genealogists or Historians must share their work to be recognized for their research.
Why do reporters write articles when they realize another reporter is probably accessing the same sources for facts and interviewing the same people? Usually, their motivation is to ‘scoop’ other reporters by being the first to share a written or oral account of the event with the hope that readers and TV viewers will find their account the one most enjoyed and shared. Notice, I said ‘to share’. A reporter who has discovered some illuminating facts, but never writes or shares the information in any form (oral, written or digital) will likely never be given credit for the discovery.
The same is true of genealogy or historical research. Merely discovering facts first does nothing unless they are shared with others. It is important for everyone who has spent time and money doing genealogy or historical research to write down and share their work with others. Otherwise, the name of the original researcher will be forgotten and the research perhaps lost forever.
Reporters try not to rely on one person for their sources. They usually seek many witnesses accounts before reporting a story. Of course, some accounts may be good and some bad, but they listen to them all and draw their own conclusions before writing a story. It is up to us as consumers to seek out the reporters’ documentation and sources before we believe and accept their reports. This is how reporters acquire credibility.
The same is true in genealogy. Some people argue that there is too much ‘bad’ genealogy on the internet and are looking for ways to stop it. But we must remember, we learn from the bad as well as the good.
We must look for all sources listed with the genealogy data and follow up by acquiring documents rejecting or supporting the work instead of simply copying another as the reporter’s did in the film above. This way we can individually accept or reject the research.
The more eyes on data, possible theories and sources we acquire help us to form our individual conclusions and many times, they are the only way to break down a ‘brick wall’ in research.
However, we may not always arrive at the same conclusion. If this happens to you, please remember that everyone has the right to their own opinions and respect them for it. Do not become a member of the genealogy police.