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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: When is It Infringement?
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 27, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Genealogists are on the look out for information about their family tree. The further back they go the more likely they are to find that someone else has done some research on the same line. In fact we hope to find such work.

We also rely heavily on the projects of individuals and genealogical societies. These people spend their time and talents abstracting and indexing the very records that we will be relying on. There is excitement when we see in the library catalog that there is an index to the land records or to the census. We are thrilled when we discover a book of will abstracts, especially when it contains an index.

Genealogical research very often relies on the work of others. However, we need to be aware of how much of another's work on which we are relying.

Understanding Copyright

This subject is far too broad to be solved here and now. However, there are certain things that genealogists need to keep in mind when they are using the research of another and incorporating that into their own family history.

Probably the most important point to bring out is that facts cannot be copyrighted. The names, dates and places that make up our family tree cannot be copyrighted. When you are adding a new branch to the family tree, you can incorporate these facts into your own research.

Copyright exists to protect the creativity of authors, songwriters, painters, and developers for a limited time. Copyrights do not last forever, though it may seem like that sometimes.

Another's Research

There are only so many ancestors to go around. Therefore, it is not unrealistic to find another researcher who may descend from the same individual. We look for the research of others to help us. This is understandable as we do not have access to all the records ever created. The nature of where we live and our own livelihood may prevent us from accessing the very records that we need. Finding a fellow researcher that has some information helps us to take our own research further back.

While we are looking for these other researchers who share our ancestors, there are some who think that ancestors can be owned. In fact they have written to me and others asking who they can go to to demand the removal of "their family" from Internet sites. Unless the family in question is living and their privacy is in question, such demands very often go unanswered.

You cannot own an ancestor. Just as you descend from them, so too do thousands of others, especially if it is six or seven generations back. And combine that with the dates of birth, marriage, and death for those individuals, those facts that are also not copyrightable, you get basically an identical report to what you know that really cannot be copyrighted.

Many people don't consider this when asking that a family be removed from a database. They don't realize that if they can compile the information, then it is likely that someone else could compile the same information.


While the facts may not be copyrighted, that doesn't give us permission to swallow up the research of others and claim it as our own. Pick up any how-to volume on genealogy, and you will find pages devoted to citing your sources. In fact there are complete books on this subject.

Despite this, people often do not consider family histories, especially those published on the Internet, to be a source. They incorporate the information into their database without citing the source. They do not attribute the data to the researcher that supplied it to them, regardless of the format.

Whether you find the information in vital records, a published family history, an Internet family history or a computer database, it is important to cite the source and to give credit where credit is due.

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

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