Demystifying Copyrights

(From Rootsweb Review)
Copyrights may be the single most misunderstood topic on the planet, and unfortunately, genealogists are prone to asserting copyrights improperly.

Many assume copyrights are all about writing. They are applied to writing, but are more specifically about rights – e.g., the right of an author establishes copying guidelines for intellectual property.

We see copyrights applied to music, photography and elsewhere – but often, they are misapplied. You may be surprised to learn which items can’t be copyrighted:

1. dates
2. facts
3. slogans
4. short phrases
5. conversations
6. modifications of another’s work
7. domain names
8. public domain items
9. antique treasures, such as old books and diaries

Before you wonder if I am a copyright lawyer, I’m not. I learned this and more from the United States Copyright Office, which states,

“Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”

I recommend the FAQs (frequently asked questions), some which are excerpted:
Can I register a diary I found in my grandmother’s attic?
“You can register copyright in the diary only if you own the rights to the work, for example, by will or by inheritance. Copyright is the right of the author of the work or the author’s heirs or assignees, not of the one who only owns or possesses the physical work itself. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Who Can Claim Copyright.”

How long does a copyright last?
“The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code).”

How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?
“Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words… or percentage of a work…”

How much do I have to change in order to claim copyright in someone else’s work?
“Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work. Accordingly, you cannot claim copyright to another’s work, no matter how much you change it, unless you have the owner’s consent…”

The website discusses copyright registration, which is useful, but not mandatory. And since authors have varying ideas as to the conditions under which works can be reproduced, I recommend stating your intentions upfront.

RootsWeb Review does this at the end of each issue.

“Permission to reprint articles from RootsWeb Review is granted unless specifically stated otherwise, provided:
1. the reprint is used for non-commercial, educational purposes; and
2. the following notice appears at the end of the article: Previously published in RootsWeb Review: [date, volume, number]”

If you have questions or wish to tell us about reprints, we’d love to hear from you. Now, isn’t that easy?

And if you’d like to establish your own “upfront” copyright guidelines, explore Creative Commons, a non-profit organization. It provides: “tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry.”

Many RootsWeb users, such as Jon Anderson, use Creative Commons. At the bottom of his webpage, click the icon for permissions to share and adapt his research.
Jon’s reasons for using Creative Commons are interesting.

Creaive Commons License

Creative Commons License


“Personally, I put everything I do with family history under one of these [Creative Common] licenses because my purpose for doing genealogy is to connect people to their ancestors. I want the records I work on to become freely available, even when people can no longer contact me. Traditional copyright is very ownership-based and over time, records become locked up in copyright and not available. People move, eventually pass on, and unfortunately sometimes their records pass out of accessibility with them. By using the Creative Commons licenses, I can grant people the level of freedom to use my work, and to use it in new ways, without it being necessary for them to track me down and get special permission every time. Of course, most of the time people are grateful and contact me anyway.”

Rootsweb Review Editor’s Comments: We receive many emails monthly regarding copyright infringement based on other members copying information from their trees or sites. As Mary notes, information such as dates, names and places are not copyrightable. If you choose to publish your research publicly you are allowing others to utilize that information. On a related note, in WorldConnect there is an option to allow others to download a gedcom file of your tree – if you choose to allow others to copy your tree you are implying consent for them to utilize this information and to add it to their tree. On the other hand, there are a few items I want to mention that are protected under copyright law; notes that the tree owner makes about family members or research, or an authors evaluation about their research. A basic rule of thumb for what is protected is, if the content is the individual’s personal thoughts, their intellectual property, it is protected by copyright law.
Previously published in RootsWeb Review: 14 October 2009, Vol. 12, No. 10

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