Copyright is a complex area of law. The best source is http://www.copyright.gov/. The following are some general guidelines that should be considered.
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
can not 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. Let us not make these people our enemies -- we want them as our partners. Because the rights of authors and the purpose of the USGenWeb Project to freely share genealogical information online may sometimes conflict, The USGenWeb Project has established these guidelines and policies which we believe reflect the general state of U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.Code).
The Internet and Copyright - The internet is nothing more than another method of publication. Orginal 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 orign; 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.
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:
Using Copyrighted Material - One way to avoid
infringing 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
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.
Updated by AB July 2021
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