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Copyright Information

Copyright is a complex area of law. The best source is The following are some general guidelines that should be considered.

General Statement

It is vital for genealogists/family historians to understand copyright laws, not only for the protection of others' rights, but to ensure that they retain the rights to their own work. However, it is also important for us to remember that our work consists in large part of the discovery and reporting of preexisting material. We can only copyright the material we create. We cannot copyright the material we discover.

Regardless of the legalities, The USGenWeb® Project does not want to offend our many friends, whether professional or volunteer, who work tirelessly for little profit to publish reference sources. Because the rights of authors and our mission to freely share genealogical information online may sometimes conflict, we have established the following guidelines and policies, which we believe reflect the general state of the U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S. Code).

Copyright facts

Copyright Law - An Overview

The Internet and Copyright - The internet is nothing more than another method of publication. Original wording appearing on a web page has the same copyright protection as any other creative work and cannot be reproduced without permission, unless under the provisions of "fair use."

What does copyright protect? - Copyright protects "original works of authorship." In 1884, the U.S. Supreme Court defined "author" as "he to whom anything owes its origin; originator; maker" and goes on to explain that copyright is limited to "original intellectual conceptions of the author," (Burrow-Giles v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53). These definitions have stood the test of time and were referenced again in the 1991 decision in Feist v. Rural (499 U.S. 340) when the Court ruled that facts are always discovered, not created, and can not be copyrighted by anyone. Thus, in a factual compilation or database, copyright protects only those components of the compilation that are original to the author, i.e. selection, coordination and/or arrangement, not the facts themselves. Also, for compilation copyright to subsist, there must be something creative about the selection and/or arrangement. An alphabetical or chronological arrangement is a standard way of arranging data and can not be copyrighted.

However, if your U.S. State or County has a substantial immigrant population and you are considering using a City Directory or other database published in their country of origin, remember that the law of other countries may differ from U.S. law. Most members of the European Union as well as Canada recognize "Database Right" which does protect a factual compilation, although the protection usually has a shorter duration than that for original, creative works.

Copyright Law Before 1978 - Prior to the Copyright Act of 1976, a work published with notice was copyrighted for 28 years and could be renewed for another 28 years, for a total of 56 years. When the new law went into effect in 1978, that copyright protection was extended to a total of 75 years (subsequently extended to 95 years) for all works currently covered by copyright. Prior to 1978, it was necessary to include notice of the claim of copyright on published copies, and to promptly register the work for protection. If a work was distributed (published) without a valid copyright notice (the symbol or the word "copyright", the date, and the name of the author), it became public domain upon publication. Under the pre 1978 law, there was no protection of an author's rights in a work until it was published or registered as an unpublished work. "Published" means distributed to the public, not that a publishing company printed and distributed the work.

The Current Copyright Law - Since Jan. 1, 1978, everything an author (including you and me) has created is protected by copyright the minute it is written. The 1976 Act also allowed the author of a work published after January 1, 1978 without a valid notice to correct the error by registering the work within 5 years of publication. The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1989 made both notice and registration unnecessary for works first published after March 1, 1989. However, registration provides prima facie evidence of copyright and is usually required to file suit in the courts. A copyright notice alerts others that the work is copyrighted and prevents a defense of innocent infringement. The basic filing fee to register a copyright electronically is $65.00 or $45.00 for a single work, not made for hire, by a single author or claimant.

Duration of Copyright -

What is Public Domain? -

Any published and/or registered work for which the copyright term has expired, or for which copyright was never secured.

What is "Fair Use" of Copyrighted Material? - U.S.Code, Title 17 does not provide definitions of what is and is not fair use of copyrighted materials. Instead, it lists four criteria:

  1. The purpose and character of the use. Does the use serve simply as a substitute for the original, or does it add something new with a further purpose such as scholarship, comment, or criticism?
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work. Is the original primarily a factual work, or is it mostly an original expression?
  3. Factual works have more limited protection since there are often only a few ways to express a particular fact.
  4. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the entire work. There are no fixed rules for the number of words or paragraphs that constitute fair use. The relation of the quantity must be considered relative to the size of the book or article. The quality of the material and its importance to the work must also be considered.
  5. Effect of the use on the market for, or value, of the work. Even if your use is not-for-profit, if your use impacts the market value of another's protected expression, your use is probably not fair use.

Using Copyrighted Material - One way to avoid infringing on copyright is to paraphrase material, i.e. to put it into your own words. You should, however, always give credit to the source and refrain from extensive use of paraphrasing or indirect quotes. The copyright law itself, under the fair use provision, protects the users' right to copy copyrighted material in certain situations. The copying of a copyrighted work for scholarship or research, for example, is not an infringement of copyright protection. Furthermore, you are not restricted from publishing (or otherwise selling) your scholarship or research. In general, if you republish something exactly the way it looked when first published, you have to worry about copyright laws unless the work is over 95 years old. Regardless of whether copyright laws apply to your situation, The USGenWeb Project urges you to cite your sources in all genealogy work. It makes it easier for the next person to verify what you are doing, and indicates scholarly research.

Lookups - Folks doing lookups should remember that authors have a legitimate right to compensation, and a well-done lookup should include telling folks how to buy the book when it's of significant value to their research. Authors need to understand that genealogists have a right to look before buying and that lookups can represent a marketing tool rather than a loss of sales. To protect The USGenWeb Project as a whole, and each of us as participants in the project, you should remove all lookup offers for which you do not have written permission or have not determined that the source is in the Public Domain and therefore requires no permission.

Where to get Permission - The publisher is the best place to write for permission to quote from a book, poem, song or magazine article. Ask your reference librarian for help locating the publisher's address if it is not printed in the book or magazine. If the publisher is no longer in business, try locating the author in Who's Who in Literature at your local library.

Fees for Permission - There is usually no fee for permission to quote from copyrighted materials.

Reprints and Facsimile Copies - Once material enters the Public Domain it may be republished or copied in part or in total by anyone. A reprint of Public Domain material may be copyrighted. However, the copyright only applies to any new material (introduction, summary, tables, index, etc.) which was added to the original. The original material is still in the Public Domain and can be used freely. Contact the reprint publisher and/or author if you have a question on what is original and what is new.

LDS filmed books - What counts here is whether the original work is copyrighted. The LDS copies works on which the copyright has expired, but also may have received permission to copy and redistribute a work still in copyright.


Page content reviewed and/or updated by the Advisory Board 2023 Feb

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