04 February 2012

Copyrights and Copy Wrongs

Inevitably, someone uses another person's information, photos and documents and issues of copyright come up. But what laws protect your rights and how do you exercise them? When have you relinquished your rights? How do you keep yourself from infringing on the rights of others?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office FAQ, to keep yourself from infringing on the rights of others, you should ask before you use someone else's work. What if you don't know who that is? Well, the copyright office will do a search for you for a fee, or you can go to their offices and search yourself for free if the copyright is before 1978. You can search online for anything after 1978. Of course, this only works if they have registered the copyright, and a lot of what you'll use in everyday genealogy isn't registered.

What about fair use? Well according to fair use doctrine, you can use excerpts or quotes for the purpose of commentary, criticism, news reporting or scholarly reports. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules, so sometimes you'll get away with it, other times not. If you are worried about not being protected by fair use, ask for permission to use the work. Always better safe than sorry. According to the copyright office, "Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work." So there is a lot of grey area on both ends of this argument.

What do you mean I don't own my photographs? That's right, you don't own any photo of your own family unless you yourself took the picture. The photographer, or the owner of the photography studio, owns those photos and reproducing them can be infringement! Of course, most photographers won't enforce this copyright unless you start to use the photos for profit or they somehow feel misrepresented with your use of the photo.

Acknowledging the owner doesn't transfer ownership! Just because you give the original copyright owner credit doesn't mean you can use the work unless there is an expressly written agreement to that affect.

So how long do copyrights last? Well that depends on a few factors including what the work is and when it was created/published. After January 1, 1978, a copyright lasts 70 years after the author's death. If there is no author, or it's a work for hire, the termination of copyright is 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation (whichever is shorter). These are general rules and they get wonky when you start talking about publications before 1978, so I provided this link so you can familiarise yourself with some rules.

How do I protect what's mine???? Well first, know what's yours! Unless you created it, you aren't the owner. I don't care if you paid for a copy, you aren't the owner of the original work. You would need express written permission to post things willy-nilly on any website, blog or book. If someone contacts you saying you have their pictures/document/whatever and they want you to remove it, just do it. You can be facing serious litigation should they wish to pursue it and fair use isn't fairly implemented!

This is totes copyrighted!!!1!!11! Do not reproduce!

If it's a photo you are sharing online, add a watermark via photo software. If you're just worried that the people will attach the photograph to the wrong person(s) in their tree, do as I've shown here and label the people in the photo. Add a line about the date or location. Some people have complained that others are saving a copy of their photo and then uploading it to their tree. What this does on Ancestry.com is erase the original owner. Why's this a big deal? Well, when the next person wants more photos, they'll ask the copier who may have just the one. Meanwhile there you are with albums upon albums of precious memories to share and no one knows how to contact you!

As always, I remind you that ANYTHING shared publicly online can be taken by anyone who knows how to copy/paste. It doesn't make it right, and there are laws to protect you if you wish to retain a lawyer and pursue a suit. Many people will feel that if you chose to display it publicly, you are implying consent of use. And any site, whether it is Ancestry, Facebook, Youtube, etc. have terms and conditions that state that copyright infringement will not be tolerated if you can prove it and that they take no responsibility if there is an infringement, beyond helping to take it down. Ancestry even takes it farther to specifically mention that they take no responsibility for what you post (outside of obscene or copyrighted material), what people share, or any public member tree errors. So if you want your information to stay your information, don't post it publicly and don't share it. Even if you don't post it online, any family member you give it to can do so and lead to world of trouble. So know your rights and what the company will do to help you BEFORE you post.

With that all said, I'd like to end by asking that you share any and all information you feel comfortable with. I know there are those who feel that they spent time and money to hunt these items down and they don't want to just give them away; but for me, anything I have that can help means that that is one less step you have to take on the journey. It becomes a collective move forward. And by sharing the factual items I have, you can build a better family tree. There are always those who will abuse the right and add things that aren't true. But there's little I can do about that besides stress out. I can only hope that they will be a minority and that people following their research will see how flawed it is and ignore it. Life's too short to go scream at the wind.


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