The practice of genealogy researching and publishing information
about someone's ancestors falls under the purview of intellectual
property laws. Computers attached to CD-ROM readers and communications
networks make it easy to compile information from disparate locations
and then convey it to any point on the globe. Who owns a compiled genealogy?
The one who compiled it? The one who possesses a copy? The one whose ancestors
are the subject of the compilation? Anyone? No one?
This article does not purport to answer every question about copyright
and related doctrines. Nor can it even plumb the depths of all the legal
issues involved with the practice of genealogy. Rather, it should be taken
as a launching pad for further discussions in intellectual property. It
should definitely not be construed as legal advice. First, I'll define
several terms related to copyrights, and then, I'll talk about how copyrights
relate to you and your genealogy work.
What is Copyright?
A copyright is an exclusive right to reproduce a "work of authorship,"
to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies of the work, to perform
the work, and to publicly display the work. A work of authorship must
be "original" and must be fixed in a "tangible medium of expression" in
order to be protected. As subject matter, genealogy generally falls into
the "literary works" category of works of authorship.
In the U.S., copyright laws derive from the U.S. Constitution which gave
Congress the power "to promote science ... by securing for limited times
to authors ... the exclusive right to their ... writings." (Art. 1, sec.
8) Federal legislation preempts state laws on the subject of copyright.
Copyright statutes are found in Title 17 of the United States Code, whose
last major revision was called the Copyright Act of 1976.
As used in the intellectual property context, "original" means both
- originating with the author, not derived from another source, and
- novel or new, not previously known or expressed.
In copyright law, the first definition is paramount; an author's work
need not be different than another's, only that it is independently created
by him or her. As Justice O'Connor has stated, "The sine qua non
of copyright is originality. ... Originality requires independent creation
and a modicum of creativity."(Feist) The common explanation is that anyone
can pen (and claim a copyright in) an exact copy of Ode to a Grecian
Urn as long as they had never seen or heard Keats' poem.
A "tangible medium of expression" can be any method of recording "now
known or later developed, from which [the work] can be perceived, reproduced,
or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine
or device." Spoken words are not tangible unless recorded. Ideas are never
tangible and do not receive protection, but their expressions do.
When Copyright Arises
Under current U.S. copyright law, a copyright arises when a work is fixed
in a tangible medium of expression. That is, it automatically comes into
being when it is recorded in any fashion. The immediate owner of a copyright
is the author, or authors in the case of joint authorship. Works created
by employees of the U.S. Government and most state and local governments
are not protected by copyright. Copyrights in "works made for hire, "
that is, works created by employees as a part of their employment, are
owned by the employer.
A copyright may be transferred to another, as is commonly done when authors
assign their rights in a work to a publisher in order to get the work
published. A major part of the publishing and movie business concerns
itself with buying, selling, and tracking copyrights.
Ownership of Copyright
Ownership of the copyright is distinct from the ownership of any material
object in which the work is embedded. Mere possession of a book, for example,
or a CD-ROM, does not give the possessor absolute right to do anything
they please with the contents of the book or CD-ROM.
A work that is not copyrightable or whose copyright has expired or lapsed
is considered "in the public domain." There are no restrictions on what
can be done with works in the public domain.
Term of Copyright
Newly created works are protected during the author's lifetime and an
additional fifty years thereafter. (Congress is considering a provision
to add 20 years to this limit.) Works created before 1978 are governed
by the law then in effect, generally for a total term of 75 years. In
general, any work published before 1922 is now in the public domain.
Certain expressions cannot receive copyright protection, either because
they are not original (such as ideas, facts, events, news of the day,
concepts, principles, Laws of Nature, or discoveries), or the domain of
patent law (devices, procedures, processes, method of operation) or trademark
law (names, titles, logos). If a concept can only be described in a limited
number of ways, its expression is said to "merge" with the concept and
is also not copyrightable. Also not copyrightable are blank forms, plain
calendars, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common
A compilation, that is, a collection of works, is itself a work that
receives copyright protection whether or not the works it contains are
copyrightable. The originality involved in compiling (selecting, arranging,
explaining, etc.) the compilation qualifies it for its own copyright.
Until 1991, compilers could assert a right in a compilation of public
domain facts based on their considerable effort to compile them into a
new work. But the Supreme Court threw out this "sweat of the brow" theory
in its decision "Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service," (499
U.S. 340). Since then, database owners have been forced to use other techniques
to protect their market, including license agreements and moral suasion.
"Fair use" allows non-infringing copying of a copyrighted work for such
purposes as comment, criticism, news reporting, teaching, scholarship
or research. In determining whether such use is fair, courts consider
In general, copying a small amount of a work is considered fair unless it
is the heart of the work.
- whether the purpose is commercial or non-commercial,
- the nature of the work,
- the amount used in relation to the whole work, and
- the effect of the use on the market or value of the work.
You, Genealogy, and Copyright
The copyright laws affect both the research and the publication of your
genealogy, either a narrative family history or a simple pedigree family
line. First, though, consider that the basic facts about your ancestor's
life (such as name, birth date and place, marriage partner, date and place,
and death date and place) do not receive copyright protection, no matter
their source. Whether you went to the county courthouse, rented a microfilm
of the relevant records, or found the data in a commercial CD-ROM, the
basic facts of a person's life may be freely copied; they are in the public
But adding any kind of narration to these basic facts gives rise to a
copyright in the creative portion of the work. The more narrative, the
stronger the copyright. If you are the author, you should take care to
mark your work to give the proper notice. If it is a large or major work,
consider registering it and depositing a copy in the Library of Congress.
On the other hand, if you find narrative material in a good family source,
you should take care not to violate the rights of the author. Remember
the idea of "Fair Use," mentioned above, before using more than a sentence
or two, seek out the author and get permission. Do not assume that just
because you have a copy of a story, you can copy it again or incorporate
it into your family's history. If the author is dead, genealogists
of all researchers are unable to use the excuse that they couldn't
locate the heirs to seek copyright clearance!
Simple pedigree charts are not copyrightable, despite their markings,
even when filled in with facts. But add a "modicum of creativity" and
you can claim copyright protection in a pedigree chart. The same goes
for computerized pedigree data, either in disk form or in a GEDCOM file.
Computerized family trees submitted to a compilation such as Ancestral
File, GENSOURCE, the World Family Tree Project, or a GenWeb site are subject
to the same laws of copyright as are printed genealogies. By submitting
your data to one of these compilations, you implicitly agree to allow
your information to be published. But if you include someone else's creative
work along with yours, both you and the compiler may be liable for infringement.
Genealogy.com warns contributors to its World Family Tree project about
these issues in its WFT Instruction Guide, under "Your Rights as a Contributor
to the World Family Tree."
Although basic copyright protection is automatic, additional steps are required
by law to either avoid fines or to receive punitive damages in an infringement
suit. None of these is any longer a condition for copyright protection.
Marking a work with the word "Copyright," abbreviation "Copr," or the
symbol © (the "C" in circle) plus the date and the author's name
is permitted by law to provide legal notice of a copyright claim. In an
infringement action, an infringer cannot reduce damages by claiming "innocent
infringement" if the work was clearly marked.
The copyright law permits registration of the copyright at any time during
its duration. Registration is required before bringing an infringement
action at law. Registration involves filling a brief form, paying a small
fee, and sending two copies of the work to the Register of Copyrights.
For more details about this, visit The
United States Copyright Office.
Depositing two copies "of the best edition" of a work with the Library
of Congress within three months of publication is a mandatory requirement
of the copyright law. The copies sent to the Register of Copyrights for
registration purposes fulfill this requirement.
Genealogy is a literary work under today's copyright laws. And everyone
involved in research and preparation of a genealogy should be aware of
copyright, as they use others' work for source material and generate their
For Further Information
The Web sites listed below can offer more guidance about copyright issues.