Copyright Law and Genealogy



As genealogists, we need to know something about copyright law. What kinds of works can be copyrighted? How much of someone else's work can we copy without breaking the law? How do we protect our own material? This little summary should help to answer these questions.

Copyright protection is for creative works. You cannot own a copyright on a list of facts. If you format the facts in a unique way, you can copyright the format €“ but not the facts themselves. For example, vital records are public records and cannot be copyrighted. But if you publish them in a unique format, you can have copyright protection on the format. Another example: An ancestor chart does not have copyright protection because it is a list of facts, but a family group record that includes the author's own unique comments on the family does have copyright protection because something creative has been added.

The internet is the same as paper. Anything original that is posted on the on a webpage or a mail list is owned by the person who wrote it. If someone posts a list of facts, you may copy it and send it on to others. If someone posts a family record with original format and/or original comments, you may not copy it or send it on to others without written permission from the author.

Here is a summary of the current copyright law as it pertains to written works:

Any original written work (book, letter, article, etc.) is the property of the person who wrote it and is protected under copyright law. However, if you have not MARKED and REGISTERED and DELIVERED it, you cannot take anyone to court for using it. In order to enforce your copyright, you must do three things:
  1. Mark it. This means it must be marked with the name of the author, the date of publication, and the word "copyright" (or a "c" inside a circle). You can and should mark it thus, even before you register it.
  2. Register it. To do this, you must fill out the proper form and mail it to the United States Copyright Office, together with the correct fee and a copy of the work itself.
  3. Deliver it. Mail two copies of the work to the Library of Congress. If you take someone to court, the judge will very likely throw the case out if you haven't done these things.

Terms of Copyright

Individual authors of published works:
At the present time, for anything that was published after 1978, a copyright is good for the life of the author plus 70 years. If it was published before 1978, the copyright is good for 95 years from the date of publication.

Corporate authors (this includes newspapers):
95 years from publication date on all published works.

Unpublished manuscripts (this includes personal letters):
Written before 1978 - copyright expires in 2002.
Written after 1978 - copyright expires in 2017.

What constitutes "fair use"?

It is okay to use a small portion of a published work for comment, criticism, news reporting, or research, if you give credit to the author. The amount that is "fair" depends on several things - and these things would be considered if someone decided to take you to court for using their work without permission.

  1. The nature of the work.
  2. Whether it was a commercial or non-commercial work.
  3. The amount copied in relation to the whole. (Contrary to popular opinion, there is no set percentage for this.)
  4. The effect of the use on the market value of the work. Photocopying a few pages for research or quoting a few sentences in an article will not get you into trouble. But if you use a major portion of the work, you are breaking the law.
Here is the URL of the United States Copyright Office. Please go there for further information.

The Bottom Line - Be careful how you use the work of others and, if you want the law to protect your work, take steps to register the copyright.

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