The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
About once a week or so I receive an e-mail from a person who feels “ripped off.” Each e-mail comes from someone who expends a lot of time and effort collecting genealogy information about their ancestry and then decides to share the information with others. Some time later, that person finds the same information published elsewhere, apparently by someone else who “ripped off” the information from the first person. The usual questions are: “Is this legal? Can he do that?” and “Isn’t my data copyrighted?”
There are numerous other questions about copyrights in the genealogy community. If I find information in a book, can I legally copy that information and then republish it elsewhere? I also hear complaints about genealogy data being offered for free that later ends up on a CD-ROM disk or online database being sold by a commercial company. Questions about copyrights arise time and again.
There are no quick and easy answers to these questions. However, we can examine the facts and the laws involved to at least narrow the discussion down a bit. I will focus only on copyright laws in the United States. The laws in other countries will probably be similar but will vary in details, especially as to the question of what is considered to be public domain.
First we need to define, “What is a copyright?”
A copyright is an exclusive right to reproduce a “work of authorship,” to prepare derivative works (i.e., works that you derive from other works), to distribute copies of the work, to perform the work, and to publicly display the work. A work of authorship must be “original” and must be fixed in a “tangible medium of expression” in order to be protected. Genealogy publications, both electronic and printed, generally fall into the “literary works” category.
Perhaps it will help to look briefly at what works are not copyrighted. The phrase “public domain” refers to all works that are not covered by copyright. This includes works that were never covered by copyright or any works on which the copyrights have expired.
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