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Overheard in GenForum: Making Photo Copies & Copyrights
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 03, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My family had our picture taken at a local community center. The photographer's name or business address was never given in the notice, on his receipt, on the picture or anywhere in the package we received. When we found we were short pictures we took it to the local Big-K to have a copy made. They refused to copy it without the permission of the photographer. Obviously the photographer did not care but the stores who own these Kodak copiers in this area are adamant about it. Is this true across the U.S.? -- Susie

A: Copyright is one of the most confusing acts to have come out of the government. The legal gibberish aside, there are many misunderstandings about what is copyrighted and what isn't that plagues genealogists in almost every aspect of the research and publishing phases.

So often genealogists feel that they are exempt from copyright laws because of the reason they seek the information. This is not always true and when you begin to look at things like photographs, especially those where you are the subject, the waters get even murkier.

Copyrights are designed to protect creativity.

Copyright Primer

The Copyright Law is not a simple paragraph. In fact, the Copyright Law can be found in Title 17 of the United States Code, where you find it is comprised of a preface, thirteen chapters, and seven appendices. It is no wonder that we are so often confused when it comes to copyright. There are lawyers who specialize in copyright law because of the intricacies found within Title 17.

The Copyright Law was created as a means of protecting original works. This was done to encourage authors, musicians, artists, and others to create, knowing that their work would be protected for a certain amount of time. The Copyright Law was never intended to be a forever type of law. Copyrights expire. The trick is in deciphering when they expire and when you can use information or photos or charts found in a work still covered by copyright.

There are a number of ways in which copyrighted material may be used in our research. When published information either on the Internet or in a book it is important that we not have infringed on anyone's copyright. This includes photographs, an often misunderstood copyright when we are the persons in the photograph.

Copyrighting Photographs

Like most other works of creation, photographs are covered under copyright from the moment the photo is in a tangible format. This is to protect the creativity of the photographer.

After all, it is usually the photographer who arranges the individuals and adjusts things like the lighting, any props that are used and so forth. There is also the photographer's experience that is covered by the copyright.

So, while the photograph is of your family, the creation of that photograph is what is covered and as a result it usually cannot be copied by a photo shop or copy place. Of course, not all photo shops and copy centers understand the copyright law so you may find one that will make the copies for you.

Getting Permission

There are times when a photographer makes some statement in the paperwork that accompanies the photographs that allows copies to be made of the photographs. If it is on the paperwork it is probably just a generic statement giving permission.

If they packet doesn't have such a statement, then you could probably contact the community center. I am sure they would know who came in to take the pictures and they could give you the name and address of the photographer.

While many will suggest that you just scan the image and have it printed out, this is a copyright violation. It isn't enforced very often, but as genealogists we get in the habit of thinking that these "personal" copies are not a copyright issue and they usually are.

In Conclusion

Copyright is one of the most least understood laws and it affects each of us, especially genealogists. It affects our research and photocopies and duplicates of photos that we often make. Copy centers and other photo copying businesses are taking a harder line on this to keep themselves free of legal issues.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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