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Copyright & Genealogy

Can You Copyright Your Family Tree?


One subject which is always good for a passionate discussion among genealogists is the issue of copyright laws as they pertain to genealogy. Some feel the family data they compile and place in GEDCOM files or on the Web is protected by copyright. Others are of the opinion that everything genealogy-related on the Internet is public information and free for the taking. The remaining genealogists cover the spectrum of opinions between the two extremes.

Is it Copyrighted?

Copyright laws vary by country, but for most countries the basic premises are the same:

  1. facts and data can not be copyrighted

  2. narration, compilations and creative works are protected by copyright

Copyright law in the U.S. does not protect data, only the presentation of the data. This is an important point for genealogists, because it means that facts (names, dates, places, etc.) presented in a standard format, such as a pedigree chart or GEDCOM file, are not protected by copyright. However, if you take this data and present it in your own unique format, such as a narrative, then the presentation of the material is protected by copyright, even when the facts are not. Large, original compilations of facts can also be protected by copyright - such as in the case of genealogical data CDs. You can enter a fact from such a CD into your database and it is free for use, but you can not legally reproduce the entire content of the CD. Public records in the U.S. are also not protected by copyright laws. This means that information copied from vital records, tombstones, court records, etc. are considered facts and cannot be copyrighted.

Not all creative works are protected by copyright laws. Original, published works created prior to 1923 are no longer covered by copyright. Some works created after 1922 may also not be eligible for copyright protection, but this takes careful research to verify. In general, it is best to assume that such works are protected unless they include a statement to the contrary.

Protecting Your Work

So how do you go about publishing your genealogy information on the Internet, while still protecting it from genealogists too lazy to do their own research? It's all in the extras. If you wish to display your information in GEDCOM or pedigree chart format, then include plenty of personal commentary in the form of notes. Or consider displaying your family information in a story format complete with photos (yes, they are protected by copyright). This won't prevent people from using your facts, but it will make it difficult for them to legally import your family tree into their database verbatim.

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