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The original copyright law was enacted in 1790. Books were usually protected for 28 years, and the copyright could be renewed for an additional 47 years. After Jan 1, 1978 copyrights are good for the life of the author plus fifty years. Books for hire, anonymous, and pseudonymous works are currently protected for 100 years from creation or 75 years from publication, whichever is shorter. Another amendment on 3/1/1989 eliminated the requirement for a copyright notice in a book: original works are automatically copyrighted. So, anything published 75 years before 1978 is probably safe to use, although it would be courteous to include a citation. On the other hand, someone else may have already reprinted some or all of this material and obtained a new copyright on their work, making the use of what is apparently in the public domain, illegal. If you copy pages from books with the intent of using them in your genealogy book, you may have violated copyright law, unless you a) obtain written permission to do so, or b) the material has passed into the public domain. When you reprint a work that's in the public domain, you can copyright any new material that you add such as an introduction, notes, explanatory text, etc.

There may be a way for you to include at least some of the material, however. Fair use comes into play here -- you are permitted to quote *brief* passages from another work. The conservative estimate of "brief" is one paragraph. Now that doesn't mean one total paragraph from the family history -- that means one paragraph for each quote. So, you can quote from the same source numerous times without worrying about having quoted more than a paragraph. (That *isn't* license to do tons of quotes, each a paragraph long -- just a way to quote pertinent material without going *too* gray worrying over it.) So, if the material you have has some particularly pithy paragraphs, quote away, but save your quoting for those.

The burden is on anyone who wants to reprint a work to determine if it is still covered by copyright. In the case of named authors, the Copyright Office maintains a list you can search for known dates of death. For anonymous works, if the 75 year or 100 year test is met, the Copyright Office presumes the author has been dead for 50 years.

Unless you know the copyright has expired or your use clearly comes within one of the "fair-use" exemptions of the Copyright Act, you're very likely violating the copyright owner's rights if you don't have permission---preferably in writing---to use it. The fair-use exemption (other than single copies for personal reference or a reasonable number for classroom use) that most often applies would be the use of brief excerpts for the purpose of review or critical comment. Just using it for the information of other people wouldn't seem to qualify.

Data in family histories is not copyrighted. That means that you can use the data all you want to, as long as you don't quote reams of stuff. Data means facts and not conclusions or the way Great Aunt Maude expressed herself when she said that Uncle Albert was such a scoundrel that his own vest pockets kept checking themselves to see if they'd been robbed. Quote that stuff. And if you do use the raw facts, it's good to cite your source anyway. "According to a family history written in 1832 by the Queen of Prussia, Tobias the First was born in 1597 on a snowy December Saturday in Bavaria." That way people will know that your sources are secondary.

This is general information and isn't intended as legal advice. A copyright attorney would be a good idea if you are planning to reproduce blocks of text, especially considering all of the genealogy CD's which are being published these days. For more on copyright laws, information, pamphlets are available from the United States Copyright Office.


Disguised as the nicest people on earth, many genealogists are nevertheless thieves, plagiarists, and copyright infringers. Some are high-tech robbers using computers, mice, and Internet Service Providers to steal intellectual property. Some try to hide their crimes under mantles of excuses such as:

o I thought everything on the Internet was FREE.
o I'm just looking up information for FREE. I don't charge people anything.
o You can't copyright facts and that's what genealogy is.
o Genealogy was meant to be shared.
o This is information about my family and I'm entitled to it.
o Reproduction of copyrighted materials was intended to keep people from distributing information for profit.
o Authors are too greedy and should be grateful they are getting free advertising on the Web.

No matter how easy it is to copy from the Web, a book, or a CD, taking another's work is wrong. Access to a great deal of genealogical material may be free, but that does not give you a right to copy and use someone's intellectual property -- without his or her permission. If you offer to do lookups for others (whether you charge or not) in books or CDs that you own, you may be guilty of copyright infringement. Obtain the author's permission first -- you might be surprised at how gracious most authors are. Broderbund, one of the largest producers of genealogical CDs, clearly notes in all of its CD booklets that it considers the following wholesale sharing a copyright violation:

o Systematically making a CD freely available to more than one person at a time.
o Systematically make large parts of a CD's contents freely available to others.
o Uploading all or part of a CD's contents onto an electronic bulletin board.
o Circulating a printout taken straight off the CD.

The USGenWeb Project offers four "golden rules of copyright" at

o Materials older than 1923 are absolutely safe. (They are in the public domain.)
o Relaying FACTS is OK. (This does not mean copying.)
o If the use of material created by someone else diminishes the market value of that person's work, then the copyright has been violated.
o Getting written (not e-mail) permission from the author/publisher is the surest way to ensure that you are not violating copyright law.

So what is copyrightable? Some like to argue that genealogy is just facts, and facts can not be copyrighted or that the information came from public records and therefore can not be copyrighted. It is true that original public records in the U.S. cannot be copyrighted, but a compilation of them can be. The law recognizes the right of transcribers and compilers to be compensated and have their work protected. If you don't think this is work, transcribe some 17th-century Virginia court records or decipher some 19th-century ship passenger lists. Accumulated genealogical information, to the extent that it is an expression, can be protected by copyright, but the actual facts in the information cannot be protected.

If authors quit compiling records and writing books because of copyright infringements, what will happen to genealogy? It is true that the basic facts about your ancestors -- name, birth date and place, spouse, date and place of the marriage, death date and place, are not copyrightable. However, adding any kind of narration to the basic genealogical facts gives rise to a copyright in the creative portion of the work. See Gary B. Hoffman's article "Who Owns Genealogy? Cousins and Copyrights" at:

Does living far from genealogical repositories, having a physical limitation, being a certain age, or being in reduced circumstances entitle us to any special privileges of copying or using someone's material? Is it ever right to take anything that belongs to someone else? Would your ancestors be proud of your answers and your actions?

For more information about copyright issues see:

10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained by Brad Templeton at:

The United States Copyright Office:

Written by Myra Vanderpool Gormley. Previously published by Julia M. Case and Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG, Missing Links: RootsWeb's Genealogy Journal, Vol. 4, No. 39, 22 September 1999. RootsWeb:

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