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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Just What Is Public Domain?
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 18, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

The Internet is dramatically changing how we publish our family history. There are millions of family history web pages available and a large percentage of them are family histories posted by fellow researchers like you and I. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the copyright aspects of information posted on the Internet.

Many people think that information found on the Internet is in the public domain. By this, I mean, they think that there is no copyright on that web page and that anyone coming along can use the information as they see fit. While I will not even begin to attempt to take on the copyright laws, I will point out some things to keep in mind when you find useful information on Web pages.

Just because you see something on the Internet does not mean it is in the public domain.

What Is Public Domain?

In the world of copyright, public domain includes those works that are no longer covered by copyright laws. In the recent past, that meant most items prior to about 1920 could safely be assumed to be in the public domain. Recent changes to the copyright this year though may have affected this. So even knowing the date of original publication isn't necessarily a guarantee that the work you have found is in the public domain.

Of course, when it comes to information being posted to the Internet, the date of publication of that work is the date the Web page was uploaded to the Web. This means that it isn't going to be prior to 1920. It doesn't necessarily fall into the public domain.

Finding It on the Internet

Genealogists love the Internet because we can stumble across lots of interesting and useful sites. Many of those sites have been put together by fellow researchers. They have taken time to compile their research and create these family web pages.

Through the use of the myriad of search engines available online, you just never know when you will find a new web site that holds clues to your family history. When you find those sites, you are first thankful, second ecstatic about the new finds and third busy entering the data into your own database.

Remember the Source

As anyone will point out to you, the names, dates and places that you find in any given web page are not copyrightable. They are facts, and facts cannot be copyrighted in an of themselves. However, the overall look and feel of a given web site, along with the family stories included in such web pages do fall under the copyright laws.

For myself though, it comes down to sources. When I find data on the Internet, to me that is my source. Until I find primary documents to support what I now know from a web site, that web site is my source of that data. Therefore, it is this source that I enter in when citing evidence for the details I have typed in from that site.

Citing sources shouldn't be an option for genealogists. When you enter information into your database, it should be a two step process. First you type in the details, could be an event such as the death event. Then before moving on, you type in the source citation information.

In Conclusion

If you site the source of a web page when entering information then you can never be accused of stealing it. If you wish to incorporate a story or something else from a web site, ask first. Generally genealogists are happy to share. All they want is for you to ask them first. This is true from hobbyist to professional.

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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