Copyright Considerations (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Copyright and the Law

Copyright laws work in two general ways where the professional genealogist is concerned:

  • To safeguard the right of authors and compilers;
  • To provide for some fair leeway in usage by researchers and students.

The professional genealogist is definitely a researcher, but may find herself/himself in the first situation at times. Each country has its own variation of copyright law protection. It’s in your own best interests to familiarize yourself with the applicable law for any work you create in your country of residence. We can only make some generalized comments here. Also be aware that copyright infringement is usually subject to the law of the country where the infringement occurred.

Facts that exist in the public domain can’t be copyrighted (for instance, birth-marriage-death registrations). However, compiling them in your own style is considered a creative work with copyright ownership to the author, arranger or compiler, i.e. to the creator/originator of the form in which they appear. Even a completed family group chart, whatever form you apply it to or create it on, where you insert your conclusions of names-dates-places and births-marriages-deaths constitutes copyright.

  • In general, copyright remains with your work for a specified number of years after your death. For someone to re-publish it, or parts of it, authorization must be sought from heirs to your estate. It’s possible that prior releases or agreements before death, or a will, may assign some rights to a specific other party, such as a genealogy society. In some countries, the copyright symbol © is not even necessary to establish ownership of rights, but it doesn’t hurt to include it on any article, handout, website or manuscript you produce. Some countries allow for registration of a work, a separate process, which may strengthen a claim in adverse circumstances. Some laws will describe the distinction among various creative ownership rights: intellectual, moral, economic and digital. Be sure to investigate the differences before you allow your work to be made public, whether by way of self-publishing, a contract with a printer or publisher, or Internet publishing.
  • The same protection applies, of course, to the work of any another person that you wish to quote or publish. In the United States “fair use” and in Canada “fair dealing” are terms that express how much of someone else’s written work you can quote or copy for research and study purposes. Using another’s work more extensively or in full requires authorization from the copyright holder—a person or persons you must locate—because “citing your source” in this case is not legally sufficient. This usage includes writings such as letters, diaries and even emails (as in Standards For Sharing Information With Others). There is a notable difference in the copyright laws of these two countries in “work for hire” which may or may not apply to client situations. Please see the Reference section of this course for further reading and related websites.

Suggested Reading

Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Carmack’s Guide to Copyright and Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers and Researchers. Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2005.

Dryden, Jean. De-Mystifying Copyright: A Researcher’s Guide to Copyright in Canadian Libraries and Archives. Ottawa, Canadian Library Association, 2001.

Fishman, Stephen. The Copyright Handbook: How To Protect and Use Written Works. 5th edition, Berkeley California, Nolo Press, 1999.

Greenwood, Val. “Copyright and Fair Use” in the oft-cited Professional Genealogy.


Australian Copyright Council 

Canadian Intellectual Property Office

The Copyright Licensing Agency (United Kingdom )

United States Copyright Office

Once again, the Internet has changed the way we share—and mis-use—genealogical material. Few countries have yet codified in copyright law the Internet issues surrounding freedom of information and protection of personal privacy with regard to electronic and digital situations. But they are working on it! Once you send a family tree, chart or history to a database, or post it on your website, that information is out there in public. People are blithely “borrowing” or using it without attribution or permission. They can change it without your knowledge. Even sending such information to a friend or cousin does not guarantee the ultimate integrity of your work. If you don’t want this to happen, don’t post your creative work on the Internet! In addition, it’s often difficult and time-consuming to make corrections known that will be as relevant and widely recognized as the first faulty material, once the inaccuracy has been posted. As we know by now too, dubious and uncited information abounds on the Internet; unsuspecting hobbyists will download it to make it part of their “own research.”

Liability and Fraud

This section overlaps with copyright law in that copyright infringement can be prosecuted on both civil and criminal levels. Some genealogy authors and compilers have found that long extracts from their works have been posted electronically by a third party, without permission. In a few cases, whole articles or books have appeared on someone else’s Internet site. Unfortunately, the onus is on the author/creator to pursue the culprit for retraction or legal action.

Cynthia Hetherington advises that in such a situation, an angry email to the perpetrator could only inflame the situation. She suggests you be as polite as possible in your first contact. You could say that you recognize your material and hope that his/her readers received some benefit from it. However you would appreciate complete acknowledgment of your copyrighted content, or else removal from the site, thanking them for their cooperation. If you are ignored, then you can notify them that you are seeking legal action. Often this is enough to solve the problem.

As an author or compiler yourself, a professional avoids plagiarism of someone else’s work—not properly citing a fair length of quotation, or passing their exact words on as if they were your own. This is a basic ethical lesson we normally learn at home or in school. At your level of the Methodology series and experience, this is “preaching to the choir” but it does have a place here. Plagiarism is a serious offence that can be prosecuted. You do not want to be one of those who is victimized OR perpetrating.

Even more serious are the occasional attempts to falsify a pedigree or genealogy. This has happened in the past with unscrupulous researchers “enhancing” a family background. Perhaps a client hired them to do it; others may have been self-motivated. Such fraudulent constructions inevitably come to light at some point and have been exposed by authoritative genealogists.

Finally, another avoidable legal offence is libel. Personal attacks or defamation of character are unacceptable in any public forum, either verbal (slander) or written (libel). Remember that electronic messages—emails, chat groups, instant messaging, listserves—are published material and are often archived for public availability. Mind your manners and don’t succumb to “flaming” when discussions get tense. Libel can not only generate a lawsuit, it may be subject to criminal charges and penalties.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.