If you haven’t yet

If you haven’t already voted in the American Bar Association’s 2014 Blawg 100 voting, there is still time!

BasicIllustratorFileLetter—CSThe voting ends at the close of business today, Friday, December 19th, which probably means somewhere around 5 p.m. Central time. (The ABA Journal, which is running this show, is located in Chicago.)1

Understand, please, that it is an amazing honor simply to be named as one of the ABA Journal‘s best 100 law-related blogs, and to be included for the second year is stunning. And, really, quite a tribute to the popularity of genealogy among folks from all walks of life — even those oddballs who, like The Legal Genealogist, have a law degree.

So I don’t feel any real need to win the popular voting in the Niche category, where The Legal Genealogist is nominated. There are so many amazing blogs in that top 100 list that just being there is enough. Blogs that I read all the time, and you should too, include:

• the Law Library of Congress’ In Custodia Legis (in the Legal Research/Legal Writing category).
Defrosting Cold Cases (in the Criminal Justice category).
Lowering the Bar (in the For Fun category).

Except… except… except that, at last report, The Legal Genealogist was locked in a ballot-box showdown with a blog about, of all things, agriculture law.

Now look.


I like to eat, too. And from a genealogical perspective I descend from a very long line of farmers, some of whom were pretty good at it too.2

But I do not want to lose out to a blog about agriculture law.

So… The Legal Genealogist would never, ever, ever, do anything like countenance ballot-box stuffing.3

But if you haven’t voted yet…

There’s still time.



  1. See “Contact us,” ABA Journal (http://www.abajournal.com/contact/ : accessed 19 Dec 2014).
  2. Not all of them. Remind me to tell you about my grandfather’s days as a farmer someday.
  3. Which is, seriously, why you have to register to vote. There were what the ABA refers to as “significant voting irregularities” in the past. “Frequently Asked Questions About the Blawg 100 and Voting,” Blawg 100, ABA Journal (http://www.abajournal.com/ : accessed 14 Dec 2014). And, in context, that can only mean ballot-box stuffing.
Posted in General | 9 Comments

Why not a statute?

So reader John D. of Louisiana tossed an email to The Legal Genealogist yesterday after reading about the creation of land offices in the Northwest Territory and the requirement that federal officials involved in those land offices be bonded.

NW.ordinance“That’s something that’s always puzzled me,” he said. “The law creating the Northwest Territory is always called the Northwest Ordinance. Why that? Why not, say, Northwest Statute? Or Northwest Law?”

Ooooh. Good question.

Particularly since the way the word ordinance was used at the time is so very different from what we think of today when we use the word.

Modern usage of the word ordinance generally focuses on the most local levels of government: a village, a town, a city. So you’ll find the word defined as a “law adopted by a town or city council, county board of supervisors, or other municipal governing board”1 or “a law passed by a municipal government.”2

Even fairly early legal dictionaries focused on this local meaning. The 1856 version of Bouvier’s Law Dictionary notes that the “word is more usually applied to the laws of a corporation, than to the acts of the legislature; as the ordinances of the city of Philadelphia.”3 The 1891 first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary says the same: “In a more limited sense, the term is used to designate the enactments of the legislative body of a municipal corporation.”4

And, of course, that’s not at all the way the second Continental Congress was using the term when it adopted the Northwest Ordinance on 13 July 1787.5

No, the Northwest Ordinance did a lot more than just set local law:

(It) chartered a government for the Northwest Territory, provided a method for admitting new states to the Union from the territory, and listed a bill of rights guaranteed in the territory. Following the principles outlined by Thomas Jefferson in the Ordinance of 1784, the authors of the Northwest Ordinance (probably Nathan Dane and Rufus King) spelled out a plan that was subsequently used as the country expanded to the Pacific.6

And the answer doesn’t seem to come from the English common law, since it was used there to distinguish a legislative action that only needed two of three lawmaking elements (monarch, lords, and commons) to become law whereas a statute needed all three.7 We didn’t have any similar distinction in early American common law; we still don’t have it now.

So the answer appears to come from the distinction Black explains at the end of his dictionary definition:

The name has also been given to certain enactments, more general in their character than ordinary statutes, and serving as organic laws, yet not exactly to be called “constitutions.” Such was the “Ordinance for the government of the North-West Territory,” enacted by congress in 1787.8

So… the lawmakers needed a word to describe something bigger, more general, more broadly applicable than a simple statute would be, but smaller, less encompassing, than a constitution would be. And since the document itself begins with the words “Be it ordained,” well, what better word for what was ordained than an ordinance?

In other words, Congress made it up.

Somehow, that just doesn’t surprise me.


  1. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 17 Dec 2014), “ordinance.”
  2. The Free Dictionary (http://www.thefreedictionary.com : accessed 17 Dec 2014), “ordinance.”
  3. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society (http://www.constitution.org/bouv/bouvier.htm : accessed 17 Dec 2014), “ordinance.”
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 855, “ordinance.”
  5. An Ordinance for the government of the territory of the United States North West of the river Ohio, 32 Journals of the Continental Congress 334 et seq. (Washington D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1936); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 17 Dec 2014).
  6. Northwest Ordinance (1787),” 100 Milestone Documents, OurDocuments.gov (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/: accessed 17 Dec 2014).
  7. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 855, “ordinance.”
  8. Ibid.
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | Leave a comment

What’s that called?

Reader and friend Larry Head was doing what The Legal Genealogist so often recommends — poking around the statute books — when he realized that he wasn’t entirely sure what to call something he was coming across in those books.

off.bondIt was a surety bond, to be posted by federal appointees, but what exactly it was called and how exactly it worked… those were not so clear.

The issue came up when Larry was reviewing an early federal statute creating four federal land offices to handle the sale of lands in what was then the Northwest Territory — that vast swath of land that later became the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.1

The law created four land offices, “one at Cincinnati…; one at Chilicothe…; one at Marietta…; and one at Steubenville…” and:

Each of the said offices shall be under the direction of an officer, to be called “The Register of the Land Office,” who shall be appointed by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and shall give bond to the United States, with approved security, in the sum of ten thousand dollars, for the faithful discharge of the duties of his office ; and shall reside at the place where the land office is directed to be kept.2

Then a little later in the statute, the law provided that payments received for the lands were either to be paid

to the treasurer of the United States or to such person or officer as shall be appointed by the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the Senate, receiver of public monies for lands of the United States, at each of the places respectively where the public and private monie of public sales of the said lands are to be made ; and the said receiver of public monies shall, before he enters upon the duties of his office, give bond with approved security, in the sum of ten thousand dollars, for the faithful discharge of his trust…3

So… both the Registers and the Receivers had to give bond with approved security. What was that bond called, and how did it work?

Larry originally thought the bond might be called a performance bond, but quickly came to the conclusion that wasn’t right. And, sure enough, a performance bond is a special term that means something entirely different: it’s the kind of bond that’s required of a contractor who’s doing some work that ensures that the work will be done right. If it isn’t, the bonding company will either hire another contractor to fix it or pay the property owner any financial damages.4

What it is usually called is an official bond: “A bond given by a public officer, conditioned that he shall well and faithfully perform all the duties of the office.”5

The approved security? That was the term for someone “who becomes surety or guarantor for another.”6 A surety, in turn, is defined as “one who at the request of another, and for the purpose of securing to him a benefit, becomes responsible for the performance by the latter of some act in favor of a third person…”7

In the early days, what you had was other people essentially co-signing the official’s promise to faithfully discharge the duties of his office. At that point, nobody actually paid any money: the official and his sureties simply promised, in writing, that they would pay if the bond was ever forfeited for not doing the job. That in part was why the security had to be approved: the approving authority (the court or whoever was accepting the bond) had to be sure the people serving as security were actually in a financial position to pay up if the need ever arose.

By the end of the 19th century, this co-signed promise had pretty much been replaced by what are effectively insurance policies from bonding or surety companies. As Black’s Law Dictionary explains, a surety company is “a company, usually incorporated, whose business is to assume the responsibility of a surety on the bonds of officers, trustees, executors, guardians, etc., in consideration of a fee proportioned to the amount of the security required.”8

There are of course lots of different kinds of bonds: marriage bonds; bonds posted by guardians, executors or administrators of an estate; bail bonds; appeal bonds. But the specific term for this particular kind of bond: official bond.


  1. See Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Northwest Territory,” rev. 8 Dec 2014.
  2. §1, “An Act to amend the act intituled ‘An act providing for the sale of the lands of the United States, in the territory northwest of the Ohio, and above the mouth of Kentucky river,’” 2 Stat. 73 (10 May 1800).
  3. Ibid., §6.
  4. See generally Juan Rodriguez, “Performance Bonds Basics,” About.com Money: Construction (http://construction.about.com : accessed 16 Dec 2014).
  5. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 845, “official bond.”
  6. Ibid., 1073, “security.”
  7. Ibid., 1142,“ surety.”
  8. Ibid.
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 2 Comments

Order the scanned files

Let’s face it.

Genealogists are cheap.

We want everything, we want it now, and — heaven forfend — we do not want to pay for it.

We don’t want to pay for subscriptions to websites.

We don’t want to pay to access records.

And if there’s one way to get a record that costs money and another way that’s free, we’ll opt for free any day.

The Legal Genealogist has a word for you on that score.


Don’t cut corners. Don’t just go for cheap.

Because there really are good reasons to spend the money and get good copies of original documents.

And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to the many wonderful holdings of the National Archives.

Don’t believe me? Let’s let the images speak for themselves.

Here are three copies of an 1808 patent drawing of a still. (We Americans love our stills, don’t we?)

First, from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s online image files:1


Second, a photograph of the same patent drawing, from the microfilm held by the National Archives:2


And, last but hardly least, a scanned image directly from the National Archives:3


You tell me which one you’d rather have.

Spend the money.


  1. Eli Barnum and Benjamin Brooks, Patent No. 912X (1808); digital image, “US Patent Full-Page Images,” U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/patimg.htm : accessed 15 Dec 2014).
  2. Eli Barnum and Benjamin Brooks, Patent No. 912X (1808); National Archives and Records Service, Patent Drawings, 1791-1877, Microfilm Publication T1239, Rolls 1-320 (n.d.).
  3. Eli Barnum and Benjamin Brooks, Patent No. 912X (1808); Utility Patent Drawings; Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241, National Archives, College Park, Maryland.
Posted in General, Resources | 30 Comments

Would you please…?

The Legal Genealogist would greatly appreciate a minute of your time, and a vote in this blog’s favor.

Because I really don’t mind losing.

There are some great blogs that are also in the running.

I just don’t want to lose to a blog about … agriculture?!

Here’s the deal.

BasicIllustratorFileLetter—CSAs happened last year, this year as well, I got an email from the editor and publisher of the ABA Journal. That’s the prestigious magazine of the American Bar Association. “Congratulations are in order,” it said. “Your blawg has earned a spot in the ABA Journal’s Blawg 100, our 8th annual list of the best in blogs about lawyers and the law.”1

And, sure enough, there I am, in the Niche category, for the second year in a row.

That’s pretty cool!

Maybe not quite as cool as being linked to by In Custodia Legis,2 the blog of the Law Library of Congress, which is one of my favorite law blogs3 and which, by the way, is also nominated, in the Legal Research/Legal Writing category.

But it’s still pretty cool.

The problem? There is this one big hitch.

In addition to the “glory” of being put on the list, there’s a “beauty contest” voting aspect to this. Each category is going to have a winner. And at the moment, The Legal Genealogist is — embarrassingly — running well behind a blog about agriculture law.

I mean, seriously? Agriculture? I wouldn’t mind one bit getting outvoted by readers of blogs4 I really think genealogists ought to be reading too — blogs like In Custodia Legis (in the in the Legal Research/Legal Writing category) or Defrosting Cold Cases (in the Criminal Justice category) or Lowering the Bar (in the For Fun category).

But, in the Niche category, to be outvoted by agriculture???

So a favor, please.

Take a minute. Click on the image above or this link and go vote for The Legal Genealogist in the Niche category.

You do have to register (reason: apparently ballot-box stuffing in the past5) but it’s quick and painless and then you can vote, just once, for any 13 blogs you like.

(No, you can’t vote for me 13 times.6 So use your other votes for other great blogs like In Custodia Legis in the in the Legal Research/Legal Writing category or Defrosting Cold Cases in the Criminal Justice category or Lowering the Bar in the Just for Fun category.)

The Legal Genealogist is in the Niche category, and the voting ends this Friday.

It takes no more than one minute to vote.

Just one minute.


Trust me.

I’m a genealogist with a law degree. Would I lie to you?

Okay, okay. So would I lie to you about that?

Well… to avoid being outvoted by agriculture…


  1. I didn’t invent the term. Really. It’s defined as “a blog that focuses on legal issues and stories.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 14 Dec 2014), “blawg.”
  2. See Clare Feikert-Ahalt, “Legal Curiosities: What I Am,” In Custodia Legis, posted 2 May 2012 (http://blogs.loc.gov/law/ : accessed 14 Dec 2014).
  3. I don’t think I can bring myself to call it a “blawg.” There’s just something… well… grating about the term.
  4. Have I mentioned yet that I still can’t quite wrap my head around the term “blawg”?
  5. No joke: “Q. Why do I have to register to vote in the Blawg 100? A. Because we experienced significant voting irregularities in the past, we opted to require voters to register beginning in 2009.” “Frequently Asked Questions About the Blawg 100 and Voting,” Blawg 100, ABA Journal (http://www.abajournal.com/ : accessed 14 Dec 2014). Go ahead. It made me laugh too.
  6. Sigh….
Posted in General | 48 Comments

DNA testing and reliability

Reader Wilma Bittinger was dismayed when her daughter sent her a link to an article on DNA testing that was published online in 2013.

Visualization Of Wave ParticleOriginally titled “DNA Ancestry Tests Are Meaningless for Your Genealogy Search,” the article in the online Medical Daily begins by suggesting that:

Genealogy tracking has become big business, with many companies charging up to $300 to trace your DNA to specific historical figures or ethnic groups in the distant past by analyzing ancestry tests.

A group of scientists now offers a public warning that these ancestry tests have little scientific backing, and are often so unreliable and inaccurate that they amount to “genetic astrology.”1

“Would love to know what you think of their opinion,” Wilma wrote. “I’m not trying to tie myself to any one specific historic figure but they compare DNA testing at our level to astrology. Say it isn’t so!!!”

It isn’t so.

That wasn’t what the scientists who wrote the piece the article commented on said.

And even the article itself ends up saying it isn’t so.

The scientific piece that Medical Daily commented on was “Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing,” written by Professors David Balding and Mark Thomas, and Tabitha Innocent, Sense About Science; with assistance from Dr Turi King, Dr Lounès Chikhi, Dr Rosalind Harding, Professor Mark Jobling & Professor Guido Barbujani.2

It should tell you something to see Dr. Turi King in the list of contributors: she was one of the lead scientists who researched the Richard III case recently — using DNA evidence as part of the case that the skeleton found under a Leicester, England, parking lot was the last Plantagenet king.

So let’s begin by seeing just what it is that had the scientists upset.

What they criticized — the specific aspect that they called little more than “genetic astrology” — was the selling of DNA tests that tell you if you’re related to a distant historical figure, or that characterize your results with broad labels like “Viking” or “Zulu” or that tell you that “your ancestors moved to a particular part of the world at a specific time.”

And genetic genealogists are as critical of those advertising techniques as the geneticists themselves are.

The problem with saying you’re related to some distant historical figure is that everybody alive today traces back to the same set of far distant genetic ancestors. As the scientists put it, “If you are told that you are genetically related (share a genetic marker) to someone who lived a long time in the past, it may well be true but is not very meaningful. In reality, we all share the vast majority of our DNA through remote common ancestors.”3 That’s why you don’t find genetic genealogists telling you to add, say, Genghis Khan to your online family tree even if you’re an exact match to his known genetic markers.

As for the labels, the scientists note that “people’s genetics don’t reflect discrete groups. Even strong cultural boundaries, such as between the Germanic and Romance language groups in Europe, do not have very noticeable genetic differences.”4 So pigeon-holing results into broad categories like “Viking” or “Zulu” is patently ridiculous.

And genetic genealogists sing the same song on that issue. The Legal Genealogist has written time and time and time again about the simple reality that the percentages reported in the ethnicity estimates by DNA testing companies are just that: estimates, and nothing more.5 They are, to be blunt, cocktail party conversation starters and not a reason to do DNA testing at all.

As for the migration data, the scientists note two problems: the fact that a particular genetic group is found most commonly in one part of the world today doesn’t mean it wasn’t introduced to that part of the world more recently than we’d expect; and the fact that even if it is more common in one part of the world, you individually may have inherited it from an ancestor from another part of the world altogether.6

Yup. And genetic genealogists won’t tell you to add “North African” to your online family tree just because you and many millions of other people share that genetic marker, either.

So… so far… genetic genealogists and the geneticists are in complete agreement. There are some ways that DNA tests are being sold that are just plain silly when it comes to being useful for genealogy.

Does that mean that all DNA testing for genealogy is “genetic astrology”?

It isn’t so.

That wasn’t what the scientists said.

And even the article itself ends up saying it isn’t so.

There’s a highlighted section of the scientists’ report that reads as follows:

There are some things genetic ancestry tests can tell you quite accurately.

There are credible ways to use the genetic data from mtDNA or Y chromosomes in individual ancestry testing, such as to supplement independent, historical studies of genealogy. If, for example, two men have identified – through historical research, possibly involving surnames – a common male-line ancestor in the sixteenth century, it would be reasonable to use their Y chromosome data to test this. There are some ancestry testing companies that offer this service.

To answer a specific question about individual ancestry with any degree of confidence requires a combination of historical records and genetic information.7

And boy do genetic genealogists ever agree with that: DNA testing only works with traditional paper trail genealogy, not instead of it! As much as we might wish that DNA came with each segment neatly labeled with the name, birthdate and birthplace of each ancestor who passed it down to us, it just doesn’t work that way. Using DNA in genealogical research is hard work; it’s part of our proofs, part of our evidence, and takes a lot of effort to use it right.

But because DNA combined with historical research is such a powerful tool, even the article ended up backpedaling away from its original criticism. Medical Daily changed the title of the article from “DNA Ancestry Tests Are Meaningless for Your Genealogy Search” to “DNA Ancestry Tests Are ‘Meaningless’ for Your Historical Genealogy Search” and it added a note at the bottom of the article:

The original version of this article was entitled “DNA Ancestry Tests Are Meaningless for Your Genealogy Search,” which was inaccurate. The source material does not question the usefulness of DNA testing for questions about immediate biological relations, like paternity tests or adoptees looking for their biological families; its criticism was limited to DNA ancestry tests that claim to answer specific questions about ancestors in the distant past without supporting evidence from historical documents.8

In other words, “To answer a specific question about individual ancestry, you need to supplement your … genetic information with reliable historical records.”9

No argument there.


  1. Ashik Siddique, “DNA Ancestry Tests Are ‘Meaningless’ for Your Historical Genealogy Search,” Medical Daily, posted 7 Mar 2013 (http://www.medicaldaily.com/ : accessed 13 Dec 2014).
  2. David Balding, Mark Thomas and Tabitha Innocent, “Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing,” Sense About Science (http://www.senseaboutscience.org/ : accessed 13 Dec 2014).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Admixture: not soup yet,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 May 2014 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 13 Dec 2014). Also, “Playing with percentages,” posted 24 Nov 2013; “Those pesky percentages,” posted 27 Oct 2013; “DNA disappointment,” posted 15 Sep 2013.
  6. Balding, Thomas and Innocent, “Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Siddique, “DNA Ancestry Tests Are ‘Meaningless’ for Your Historical Genealogy Search.”
  9. Ibid.
Posted in DNA | 11 Comments

Without fail

This is the time of the year when our thoughts turn to holidays and holiday traditions.

In some families, the kids went Christmas caroling.

In some families, the kids played with dreidels and lit the candles of the menorah.

In some families, the kids made gingerbread houses.

In some families, the kids eagerly opened the little doors in the advent calendars.

In some families, the kids put out cookies and milk for Santa.

Flu SeasonIn The Legal Genealogist‘s family, at least one of the kids got sick.

No matter what.

No matter how healthy the whole family had been up until December.

No matter what my parents did to try to keep us away from anybody and anything that might cause even so much as a sniffle.

Without fail, at least one of the kids got sick.

Ah yes… holiday traditions…

Now, to be fair, the odds were very much in favor of some kid getting sick.

To begin with, there were an awful lot of kids. I am one of seven full siblings born over a period of a little more than 15 years. We had a full basketball team before the first kid was out of elementary school. So purely on the basis of numbers, it’s hardly remarkable that one (or more) would get sick.

Second, remember that we’re talking the Dark Ages of the 1950s and 1960s. This is well before most kids had the opportunity to be vaccinated for the wide variety of childhood diseases for which vaccinations are available today. So we had them all: mumps, measles, German measles, scarlet fever, you name it, we got it.

Third, remember that we’re talking middle class family here. No McMansion with individual bedrooms for each kid in my family history. If you were lucky, you had a bed to yourself. You sure didn’t have a room to yourself. No, in my family, we shared. Including contagious diseases, of course.

Fourth, remember that schools were then, are now, and forever will be basically germ factories. Kids may have developed immunities to the diseases they were exposed to at home, but man oh man… send a kid into the school system and there’s no limit to the germs that the kid gets exposed to… and catches… and brings home. Each new kid entering the school system just multiplies the chances, and it seemed for a while there like every year a new kid was entering the school system.

And then there’s the whole thing with Murphy’s Law.

You know Murphy’s Law.

That’s the one that says, essentially, that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong, in the worst possible way, at the worst possible time.

Which, in my household, meant a kid getting so sick sometime around the 15th to 20th of December that my mother had to abandon her annual plan of hauling an entire carload of kids some 300 miles or so from New Jersey to Virginia to cram into even tighter quarters with about a kazillion cousins, aunts and uncles at my grandparents’ farm.

Now in the ordinary case my mother was the best of nurses. A sick kid could usually count on being plunked into sleepers with feet (you remember those, right?) and tucked into my parents’ bed during daytime hours, with chicken soup and Vicks vaporub and room humidifiers steaming away at full blast.

Being deprived of a winter visit with her family, however, did not have a particularly good effect on my mother’s mood. The word “surly” comes to mind. And her nursing skills seemed to take a direct hit when she was called on to exercise them any time after, say, the 10th of December or so.

And heaven help the kid who was really really sick on the day when the go-or-no-go decision had to be made who then made a good steady recovery between then and Christmas Eve. The word “surly” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Ah yes… holiday traditions…

But then there were years when the kid who got sick didn’t get all that sick and was basically just doing the sniffle routine by the time the go-or-no-go decision had to be made. There surely were years when we did make that trip to Virginia.

And then there was a whole new set of holiday traditions.

Trying to convince all those kids that it would be a good idea to leave their own Christmas gifts at home and open them once we came back from Virginia (there was enough room, barely, for the kids in whatever station wagon we had at the time; there was not enough room for the kids and their gifts).

Watching my brother Paul’s lips once we got off the interstates onto the curvy bumpy backroads for the telltale signs that he was about to anoint us with his latest bout of motion sickness.

Being absolutely silent ourselves but listening to all those interesting words my father used while trying to get the station wagon up the unpaved, snow-covered hill from the big bridge up to the farmhouse… in the dark … after 10 or 12 hours on the road.

Ah yes… holiday traditions… Such a joy to recall…

Bah humbug.

Posted in My family | 14 Comments

Next in an occasional series on copyright.

It’s impossible to be a genealogist — or at least a good genealogist — without paying attention to the family Bible.

BibleRepository of so many facts (and, often, so many fancies) of family history, the family Bible is a source of great importance whenever and wherever it can be found.

And, occasionally, as we sit there ready, willing and able to write up some chapter of family history, we find a verse in the scriptures that we want to quote, sometimes even quote at length.

Can we?

Or do we have to worry about that niggling nagging issue called copyright?

The answer?

(You saw this one coming a mile away, didn’t you?)

It depends.

Now you might be sitting there wondering how it can possibly be an issue. After all, we all know that anything published in the United States before 1923 is now officially out of copyright and in the public domain.1 That means there is no copyright restriction on it of any kind and you are free to use it in any way you’d like.2 And surely the Bible was published in the United States before 1923!

Not to mention the fact that, even for material previously unpublished, the original authors of any of the books of the Bible have certainly been dead for more than 70 years, putting that material into the public domain as well.3

Except for one minor little detail.

The original works that are today the Bible were written in Hebrew. Or Aramaic. Or Greek. Most assuredly not in English. Which means that every copy of every Bible that I might be able to read today4 is a translation.

And therein lies the rub.

Because translations are regarded as the kind of works that, in and of themselves, are capable of being copyrighted.5 And a whole bunch of modern translations of the Bible are in fact copyrighted.

Examples of currently-copyrighted translated versions of the Bible include the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1946, 1952, and 1971 by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America; the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America; the New International Version®, copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, and 2011 by Biblica, Inc.; the New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007, and 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation, Carol Stream, Illinois; and the New King James Version®, copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

In other words, a whole bunch of the standard versions, including the ones we probably have at home.

Including one that surprised even The Legal Genealogist.

The King James Version.

The original version.

Translated in England between 1604 and 1611.

Of course, it’s only protected in England, and only because of a truly unique set of monopolies and grants that are not exactly the same as copyrights and are set to expire in 2039.6

So… can we use these translations? Or are we going to get into copyright trouble?

For the most part, any use we as genealogists might make of any of these translations is perfectly fine. Even the publishers themselves realize that people are going to quote the Bible, they’re going to quote the one they use most frequently, and they’re going to drive the publishers batty if we had to have permission for every little use. So most publishers, on their websites, give blanket permission for non-commercial use up to some limit:

• Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version, “less than an entire book of the Bible, and less than 500 verses (total), and less than 50 percent of the total number of words in the work in which they are quoted (and no) changes are made to the text” and attribution.7

• New International Version, for individuals, “for personal, noncommercial use, … up to and inclusive of 50 verses, … provided the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for five percent (5%) or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted” and for churches or and nonprofit educational institutions, “for personal, noncommercial use, … up to and inclusive of 500 verses, … provided the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible nor do the verses quoted account for twenty-five percent (25%) or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted” and with attribution.8

• New King James Version, in any form (written, visual, electronic, or audio) up to five hundred (500) verses or less without written permission, as long as the Scripture does not make up more than 25% of the total text in the work and the Scripture is not being quoted in commentary or another Biblical reference work, and with attribution.9

• The King James Version, “a maximum of five hundred (500) verses for liturgical and non-commercial educational use, provided that the verses quoted neither amount to a complete book of the Bible nor represent 25 per cent or more of the total text of the work in which they are quoted,” and with attribution.10

So, yes, no, and maybe.

But, for the kind of use we as genealogists might make of it, I’d feel perfectly confident that I could go ahead and use that verse or set of verses anyway.

And be forgiven even if I was wrong.


  1. See Peter B. Hirtle, “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States,” Cornell Copyright Center (http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm : accessed 11 Dec 2014).
  2. See generally “Where is the public domain?,” Frequently Asked Questions: Definitions, U.S. Copyright Office (http://www.copyright.gov : accessed 11 Dec 2014).
  3. See Hirtle, “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.”
  4. I won’t speak for you. You, after all, might be fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. I have enough trouble with English.
  5. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 14: Copyright in Derivative Works and Compilations, PDF version at 2 (http://www.copyright.gov : accessed 11 Dec 2014). And see Laura N. Gasaway, “Copyright in Translations,” Copyright Corner (Nov. 2004) (http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/copy-corner73.htm : accessed 11 Dec 2014).
  6. See Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “King James Version,” rev. 11 Dec 2014.
  7. NRSV, Licensing/Permissions (http://www.nrsv.net/contact/licensing-permissions/ : accessed 11 Dec 2014).
  8. Biblica, “Permitted noncommercial uses,” Terms of Use (http://www.biblica.com : accessed 11 Dec 2014).
  9. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, Permissions (http://www.harpercollinschristian.com/permissions/ : accessed 11 Dec 2014).
  10. Cambridge University Press, “King James Version,” Bibles: Rights and Permissions (http://www.cambridge.org/bibles/about/rights-and-permissions/ : accessed 11 Dec 2014).
Posted in Copyright | 6 Comments

The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

So The Legal Genealogist had an absolute ball doing that webinar Tuesday for the Friends of the National Archives-Southeast Region on patents, and almost immediately had a question by email.

“Patents for inventors?” the reader asked. “I thought patents were issued for land.”

Now I thought briefly about being a little snarky… because I did answer that question in the webinar. But I do realize not everyone can be online in the middle of a workday afternoon, and it really is annoying that one seemingly simple six-letter word could be used in two such seemingly different ways.

Truth is, the uses aren’t really all that different.

Here’s the deal.

A patent, by definition, is a “grant of some privilege, property, or authority, made by the government or sovereign of a country to one or more individuals.”1


Now think about that for a minute.

I’m the King.2 I own all the land in this province or colony or territory. And I give you some. Or sell it to you. Or let you have it in return for military service or some other good deed.

What I’ve just accomplished is a “grant of some … property,… made by the … sovereign of a country to one or more individuals,” right?

In other words, a patent.

That’s why a lot of land transfers, from the royal governments in colonial days (whether Dutch, French, Spanish or English), and from the federal or state governments after the United States became a country, were accomplished by means of patents.

But now let’s change the facts a little. Say I’m the federal government.3 And I give Eli Whitney the singular right to build, use and sell his cotton gin invention for a period of 14 years.4

What have I just accomplished there?

I’ve just accomplished a “grant of some privilege, … or authority, made by the government … of a country to one or more individuals.”

In other words, a patent.

And that’s why one word is used for both concepts: a patent for land; a patent for inventions.

Patently clear? Maybe.

Patently ridiculous, maybe too, but hey… nobody ever said the language of the law had to make sense.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 877, “patent.”
  2. Okay, okay, so I’m the Queen. Whatever.
  3. An appalling thought, given the state of affairs in Washington these days. But hey… stay with me, okay? It’s just a hypothetical.
  4. Eli Whitney, patent no. 72X (1794); Records of the Patent Office (Reconstructed Records) relating to “Name And Date” Patents, 1837-87; Records of the Patent and Trademark Office; Record Group 241, National Archives II, College Park, Md.
Posted in Legal definitions | 2 Comments

Some gems for 2015

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there used to be an excuse for bad genealogy.

Learning how to do it, to do things right, often meant traveling long distances at great expense even to begin to figure things out.

No ExcusesNow don’t get The Legal Genealogist wrong here: there is still an enormous value to in-person learning. I not only lecture at in-person institutes1 and conferences,2 but I also attend them whenever I can to continue my own education.

But for those who can’t, and for all the times when we can’t… today there are options.

Really good options.

Options that mean there really isn’t any excuse for not learning how to do things right.

Here are just a few of them coming up in 2015.

Legacy Family Tree Webinars

Millennia Corporation and FamilyTreeWebinars.com just released the lineup for the 2015 Legacy Family Tree Webinar Series: 58 classes ranging from genealogy technology to in-depth research methodologies and evidence analysis.

Most of the webinars are free and open to anyone who registers in advance and can be there in real-time. Most are also available free for a few days after the live broadcast. And all are available to subscribers to listen in as many times and whenever subscribers want.3

The whole lineup, from now through the end of 2015, can be reviewed online at the Legacy Family Tree Webinar website and Legacy has even added the ability to register for more than one webinar at the same time at this link.

APG’s Professional Management Conference

For folks who are, or are thinking about becoming, professionals, the Association of Professional Genealogists streams part of its Professional Management Conference, and the 2015 event is coming up fast: January 8-9, 2015.

With individual sessions beginning at just $20, a special $45 DNA bundle, or access to the full virtual conference for $145, Virtual PMC is a steal. Check out the registration details here at the APG PMC website.

RootsTech-FGS 2015

The Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and RootsTech are teaming up in 2015, with everyone converging on Salt Lake City in February. And, as is the custom for a technology-focused conference like RootsTech, many of the sessions will be live-streamed. From home, for free, you can sit in on a wide variety of sessions ranging from the keynote addresses (shared with FGS) to individual lectures.

Check in with the RootsTech website — http://www.rootstech.org/ — for more information as the event date gets closer!

National Genealogical Society 2015

Livestreaming from the 2014 conference of the National Genealogical Society in Richmond was such a success, NGS is doing it again in 2015. There will be two tracks livestreamed from the May conference in St. Charles, Missouri, one on The Immigration & Naturalization Process and one on Methodology Techniques. You can see the complete lineup here at the NGS conference website.

Registration for both is open now, ends on 29 April, and the cost is discounted for NGS members. Members pay $65 per track or $115 for both; non-members pay $80 per track or $145 for both.

I’ve heard most of the speakers who will be presenting in these tracks — and all I can say is — this is a fabulous line-up and worth every penny for those who can’t be in Missouri in May.

And more!

Many societies are now sponsoring webinars or other online learning oppportunities. I’m doing a webinar next week and another in 2015 for the Florida State Genealogical Society. I’ll be doing webinars in 2015 for the North Carolina Genealogical Society and for the Georgia Genealogical Society. The Illinois State Genealogical Society does webinars. The Southern California Genealogical Society has a terrific webinar program.

There’s a whole calendar of other online offerings, many by these and other genealogical societies, online at GeneaWebinars, a service by Dear Myrtle.4

Check it out, and sign up for the ones that interest you!

Because, any more, there are no excuses for not learning what we need to know to do genealogy right.


  1. For 2015, I’m teaching courses focusing on law and genealogy with Rick Sayre at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy and the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, an advanced law and genealogy course at Boston University’s Center for Professional Education, and the Advanced Methodology and Evidence Analysis course at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University.
  2. The Federation of Genealogical Societies conference and RootsTech in February and the National Genealogical Society conference in May among them in 2015, plus a whole raft of state and local societies. My calendar, if you’re interested, is online here.
  3. And yep, I’m one of the presenters and — full disclosure here — yep, I do benefit from subscriptions. So subscribe, willya? My cats need cat food!
  4. And if you’re involved with a society that offers webinars, you might want to connect with GeneaWebinars!
Posted in General | 5 Comments