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Overheard on the Message Boards: How to Share My Family File
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.

August 15, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am going to be copying my research to CD-ROMs to give to family members for Christmas. I want to include information found in two books which are out of print, although still under copyright. Since all the information in these books is pertinent to our family I thought of scanning the books on a separate CD-ROM and giving them out with the family trees. Is this ok or a bad idea? If it's a bad idea how should I go about sharing the information? -- Ellen

A: Genealogy is all about sharing. We want to share what we find with others. This sharing is done in many different ways including e-mail, Web sites, GEDCOM files, and now even the creation of personal CD-ROMs with either Family File databases on them or beautifully created books and Web page designs that include narrative information about the individuals. Genealogy software programs have become quite sophisticated and we are limited only by our own imagination.

Your question is one that appears more frequently as we find ourselves sharing information in this manner and in effect publishing our information. It is natural to want to share the information found in books. Of course, as you have already mentioned there is the issue of copyright.

Facts can't be copyrighted.

What is Copyrighted?

First, lets look at just what is copyrighted on those two books. The copyright law was designed to protect creativity. The facts that are listed in the book are not covered under copyright. After all, if you and I can both find a marriage record and incorporate the marriage date and place into our Family File then neither of us can copyright the marriage date and place. A book, however, is more than just facts.

If you look at the book you will find that there is probably narrative, some photographs, and perhaps even some family stories included. The compilation of all of this is what is covered by the copyright notice at the front of the book. Copyright was designed to protect this creative compilation. The facts in the book can be used by yourself or others in their genealogy. Of course, as researchers, we should be citing sources for all the information we are sharing.

Digitizing the Books?

You talked about digitizing the books and sharing them via CD with family members. This would violate the copyright protection of that book. Although the books are out of print, they are not yet in the public domain. Because they are not in the public domain yet, you cannot duplicate them in their entirety and share with others in another format.

If the information included in those books is truly all about your family, what you can do is to add the information (the facts) into your Family File. As I mentioned above you should be citing sources for all of your information, so as you add the information from these books you would then cite the book as the source of the event.

This actually serves a two-fold purpose. The first is that those reading through your information will know where you got it, so they can properly evaluate your conclusions. The second is that it makes your family aware of the books so they can look for them if they are interested. Although the books may be out of print, they do still exist and are surely available for purchase somewhere.

Finding Out of Print Books

With the author and title, family members who are interested in getting these books can begin to search for them through booksellers and libraries. The books may be available on microfilm or can be ordered through interlibrary loan. Depending on whether your family wants to just read the book or would like to add it to their personal library will determine which method is the best for them.

One of the easiest ways to find booksellers that specialize in out of print books is to visit a general search engine and type in "out of print books" into the search field. Be sure to include the quotation marks so the search engine knows you are looking for the phrase. You will find a number of such booksellers on the Internet.

Interlibrary loan offers family members the chance to read the book through a local library. Not all books that have ever been published can be received in such a manner though. Many reference books do not leave their home library for fear that they will not be returned. Some interlibrary loan systems restrict where you can view the material. For instance, you may only be able to read the book at your library, unable to take it home.

Another way to get a copy of a book is to look for it on microfilm. Many authors of genealogical books have given permission for the microfilming of the book. The Family History Library would be the first place to begin such a search. The library catalog for the Family History Library should be checked for the surname or title of the book to see if they have it on microfilm. If a family member gets the book on microfilm through their local Family History Center, then they will have to view the microfilm at that local Center. Microfilms and microfiche ordered through a Family History Center cannot be removed from the Center.

Family members may be able to find a microfilm vendor that offers the book for sale on microfilm. There are not many of these around though. While the book is not out of print, you may also suggest that they check the Genealogy Library here at If permission was granted to digitize the book, a researcher could download the pages to their printer if they wished.

In Conclusion

While your intentions were good, I am sure that you do not want to do anything that impacts the copyright of the books in question. Remember that facts found in such books can be used by incorporating the information into your own Family File and citing the book as the source. The book as a whole, though, is still protected under the copyright law and cannot be copied in its entirety until it falls into the public domain.

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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