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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Understanding Copyright
by Rhonda R. McClure

October 10, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Genealogists often have a hard time differentiating between copyrighted resources and that feeling of ownership that comes from the many years of hard work that have resulted in the information found and now published.

Copyright and Creativity

Copyright is designed to protect the creativity involved in the writing of a song or a novel. It recognizes the artistic endeavors of an artist whether he paints pictures, takes photographs or creates maps. The answer to most copyright questions comes down to the creativity, even when it comes to the scanning of digitized images.

Copyright protects creativity.

When instituted, the copyright act was designed to encourage creativity by protecting it. No one wanted to work hard writing a 500-page novel only to discover that once published anyone could claim it as his or her own. So copyright was designed to temporarily protect that work for a set number of years. That way the originator of the work could claim ownership of the piece, as well as acknowledgment.

Of course the question begs, what is creativity? How is it defined. Well the Copyright board does define it. In the case of nonfiction, which is what most genealogists compile, it looks at the formatting. What was involved in arranging the information shared in the book or on the Web site? Did thinking and planning go into the arrangement of the information?

Take for instance a CD-ROM database of marriage records. The marriages have been compiled from the original public records (for example, a marriage register or a bond book). The original register is probably arranged chronologically, usually by date of return of the marriage license, sometimes by date of application. The CD-ROM takes those and arranges them perhaps alphabetically. You can then search for an individual by surname and given name, with the resulting couple(s) being displayed when you run the search and the results are displayed. Perhaps you can run your search in different ways, searching on the page number for instance. All of these decisions show the type of creativity that went into the arrangement and display of the information included.

Why Not Facts?

Why is it then that facts themselves are not covered under the copyright law? Facts can be uncovered by anyone. Think about it for a moment. I have often found that my work and that of another researcher have resulted in the same information. In many cases it is because we looked at the same records. Perhaps we both found a copy of the marriage record or we both visited the cemetery where the individual was buried. If we used the same resources it is logical that we would come up with the same facts. A fact, even if it is incorrect, is still a fact.

I mention the incorrect fact for a reason. Someone once wrote to me and suggested that this was an active of creativity if the information shared was not correct. Actually, while we often misread a record or rely on information that is itself incorrect, when we share an inaccurate date we still have not used any creativity with that date. Perhaps the tombstone is off by a month but that date is still a fact as it stands on the tombstone. We did nothing where the fact was concerned to make it more creative.

While the facts themselves are not covered by copyright, the manner in which they are displayed is covered. What this means is that a researcher cannot come along after you have published your family history and make photocopies of the entire book only to turn around and sell it as his own work. The organization of the families, the family stories you may have included, the font and structure of the finished project all entailed creativity on the part of the compiler. This is certainly covered by the copyright law.

When genealogy is done correctly an individual can have only two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. As genealogists we are dealing in the land of facts. We are striving to put together an accurate lineage of an individual, or an accurate line of descent from an immigrant ancestor down to present day. Both you and I could work on the same project, come up with the same facts, and neither would be accused of copyright infringement based on the facts alone.

My Hard Work

The problem with genealogy, though, is that because the facts aren't covered by copyright, many times we feel used or cheated. We have worked hard, sometimes for many years, to compiled and publish our family history. In the nature of sharing we have perhaps posted the information online.

Some time later we discover that someone appears to have stolen our hard work and is now claiming it as their own. Usually we feel confident in making such a claim because we recognize the publisher of the material as someone we corresponded with or to whom we gave a large amount of our data. Has the person broken any laws? If all we shared were facts, that is the names, dates, and places, of the lineage, then no, he hasn't. Because we have invested so much time and effort collecting the information, it is sometimes hard to take when we see our information under someone else's name. We shared the information because that's what genealogists do. Unfortunately many of today's genealogists do not remember one of the cardinal rules of genealogical research -- citing the source of your information. The source of our information is where we got it from. That could be a census record, found on microfilm or a digitized image found online. It could be a published family history we used at a local genealogy library. It may also be the information shared by a fellow researcher.

Most of the time I find that researchers just want to be acknowledged for the work they have done. If you found the information either from an online published site, or a book, cite the source of that Web site or book. And remember that real research should be involved. It is better that you site a birth or death record than a published family history. While the Internet has made a lot of information available, we should not stop with just what we find there. Cite it if that is the only source you have checked but then spend time delving into the records to verify the information and then cite those records.

In Conclusion

Whether we want to believe it or not, genealogy is the study of certain facts. When done properly, everyone who is researching the same lineage should come up with the same facts. Family stories, suggestions of future research, and detailed analysis of the records found are all part of the creative side of this hobby and are covered under copyright. So remember to stick with just the facts and acknowledge where you got those facts by citing your sources.

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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