by Steve Paul Johnson, September 15, 1999
With access to the Internet, people
today are publishing creative works more than ever. Genealogy
websites are springing up everywhere. Can copyright protection
extend to genealogical information?
Lately I have noticed much discussion about copyright protection
for genealogical information. Someone creates a website of
their family history, publishes on the Internet, and someone else
"steals" the information and publishes it on their website.
People get upset after spending so many months and years to collect
and validate the information, and then many hours to create the
webpages, only to have someone take the information and publish
I can certainly understand the frustration. But what protections
do the copyright laws provide? Well, there's a lot of protection,
but only for specific things.
In general, copyright protection extends to "original works".
That is, anything you create, is automatically protected as soon
as you complete the work, and present the work in a fixed format.
A "fixed format" is anything that presents the work in
physical form. That is, if you create a work, but is stored
only in your brain, it is not protected.
The operative word in the above paragraph is "original".
If it does not already exist, it is original. If you create
a work that is derived from an existing work, it is not original,
and you'd be violating someone else's copyright protection.
For example, if you published your own sequel to Star Wars, you'd
be violating George Lucas's copyright.
Copyright protection does not extend to factual information.
You cannot publish a fact, and then claim copyright protection of
that fact. This is because facts are not "original"
works. No one creates a fact. It occurs and exists on
its own. It is public information. For example, the
fact that one plus one equals two is not an original work.
The fact that the United States declared its independence in 1776
is not an original work. The fact that Elvis Presley died
in 1977 is not an original work.
However, any book that I write which contains these facts is protected.
That is, the "book" is protected, not the "facts".
The book is the original work, which includes the layout of the
book, the format of the pages, and any thoughts I write down.
The presentation of the facts is protected, but not the facts themselves.
Genealogical information is factual information, and is not protected
under copyright law. My birthdate is factual information.
The burial location of my grandfather is factual information.
The maiden name of my grandmother is factual information.
If I created a webpage that contained these facts, and nothing more,
only the webpage is protected. Not the facts. If I added
any additional writings, ideas, comments, or anything else I create,
they would be protected, but not the facts.
The United States Copyright Laws are codified under Title 17 of
the United States Code. Chapter 1, section 102 defines what
is and what is not protected:
Subject matter of copyright: In general
protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original
works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression,
now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived,
reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with
the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.12
(b) In no
case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship
extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation,
concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which
it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
Notice in paragraph (a) that the word "original" was
The Copyright Office has published a FAQ (frequently asked questions)
concerning copyright protection. FAQ #1 states:
1. What does
a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of
authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic
works such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software
and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas,
systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the
way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, section
What Works Are Protected.
Note the second sentence which says that facts are not protected,
however the way these facts are presented may be protected.
So what does this mean to us genealogists? Well, it means
that anyone can lift the genealogical information off of our websites,
and publish it elsewhere, without consequence. The information
may even be sold, and we couldn't do anything about it. What
may be protected is the presentation of that information, and any
other ideas, opinions, or fiction we create.
But you say, "I've seen so many websites that publish copyright
statements forbidding anyone to republish the information contained
within it." Well, those people are not correct.
Their webpages are copyrighted, but not any factual information
contained within it. What if someone published your
mother's birthdate, and then included a statement that no one else
could use that information? Come on, please!
The USGenWeb Archives includes a statement on every one of its
text files that says that anyone can use the information, as long
as their notice remains with the information, and as long as the
information is not used for profit. That's got to be either
one of the most misguided statements, or the USGenWeb is unaware
of the copyright protections. No where do the copyright laws
prevent anyone from using factual information for profit, and nor
does the USGenWeb have any right to enforce such restriction.
But none of us should feel down on this. It is good that
facts are free. What if facts could be exclusively owned?
We'd all be stuck in lawsuits. What if someone owned the fact
that the United States declared its independence in 1776?
No one could make that statement without obtaining permission from
the owner. What if someone owned the fact that one plus one
equals two? Just think of all the things that could be considered
derivative works on that single principle alone!
Imagine if someone asked you for directions on how to get to the
airport. You pull out your road map, and then give the person
directions. Then, the publisher of the road map sues you because
they lost out on a potential sale! Directions to the airport
is factual information. The roadmap is the presentation of
Because facts are free, we are all able to create works, and create
works that compete against each other. Yes, it is frustrating
that all the labor you spent to collect factual information can
be freely republished by someone else. But then, I always
believed that genealogical information should remain free for use
by anyone, without restriction. That's why today, we are able
to use census records, cemetery records, vital statistics, and all
the other genealogical records.
For additional information, please visit the website of the United
States Copyright Office. Please also visit Michael Goad's
Copyright and Genealogy".
- Steve Paul Johnson [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and is the webmaster
of Cemetery Records Online.