Courtesy, ethics and law

Credit where credit is due

Randy Seaver, author of the Genea-Musings blog, is one of the most prolific genealogy writers around, with a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly output that far exceeds anything The Legal Genealogist could ever envision.

thiefHis “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun” posts always attract my eye, even if I haven’t got time always to join in the fun. He’s constantly posting transcriptions of documents from his family history, and — sometimes more than once a week — he posts lengthy family reports online.

Randy’s reports are well-researched, well-documented genealogical reports on an individual or a couple somewhere in his very large family tree.

The kind of reports that make you dearly wish you were related to Randy.

The kind of reports that will get noticed by those are related to Randy.

The kind of reports that get scarfed up and reposted online, often as attachments to family trees posted by subscribers at

And that’s what has Randy perplexed.

Last week, he threw out a question to his readers: “I have a quandary – other Member Trees keep sprouting ‘Stories’ that I’ve written, and then they are ‘attached’ to a number of other Ancestry Member Trees. What should I do?”1

He offered a number of possible responses to his own quandary:

“* Engage those persons who have ‘written’ my stories and ask for them to remove them because they have violated my copyright protection.

“* Engage those persons and request that they ask permission to use it and to add ‘reprinted by permission of Randy Seaver’ after permission is given.

“* Just let it go and be happy folks are reading my posts and website.

“* Write my own ‘Stories’ and attach them to my tree people with appropriate copyright notices and permission to attach to other trees.”2

And, he adds:

I try to share my research using my blog posts and web pages because I think that sharing and collaboration is the best way to interact with other researchers. I really don’t want to ask other searchers to remove my material from their trees, as long as my copyright notice is included in the “Story.”3


The Legal Genealogist just doesn’t get it. How is it that so many in our community don’t see that it’s wrong to take ideas and words and work from our fellow genealogists?

There’s no reason, legally or ethically, why Randy — or anyone else who has worked hard and long to produce good work — should have to go to these lengths to get credit where credit is due.

The law is clearly on Randy’s side: the minute he wrote his blog post, it automatically had his copyright attached. As the U.S. Copyright Office says, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”4

He puts the copyright symbol and notice on every one of his blog posts, but he doesn’t have to under the law. Copyright is automatic: the author don’t have to put the © copyright symbol on the material,5 doesn’t have to register his copyright with the copyright office of the country where he lives,6 though he can — and there are some extra protections if he does.7

And every ethical code you can think of — in our field and in life in general — is on Randy’s side too. Copying from others without giving credit to the original author is not sharing; it’s plagiarizing someone else’s work.

It’s something professional genealogists all expressly pledge to avoid. As the holder of Certified GenealogistSM and Certified Genealogical LecturerSMcredentials, I have pledged that:

• I will not represent as my own the work of another. …
• … In citing another’s work, I will give proper credit.8

As a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, I have agreed to “fully and accurately cite references; and … (g)ive proper credit to those who supply information and provide assistance.”9

And lest anyone think these rules are only for professionals, let me quote from the National Genealogical Society’s Standards For Sharing Information With Others:

(R)esponsible family historians consistently—

* respect the restrictions on sharing information that arise from the rights of another as an author, originator or compiler; as a living private person; or as a party to a mutual agreement.

* observe meticulously the legal rights of copyright owners, copying or distributing any part of their works only with their permission, or to the limited extent specifically allowed under the law’s “fair use” exceptions.

* identify the sources for all ideas, information and data from others, and the form in which they were received, recognizing that the unattributed use of another’s intellectual work is plagiarism.10

Need help recognizing where the line is between sharing and plagiarism? Check out “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing” at Elizabeth Shown Mills’ EvidenceExplained site.11 Or, if you’re a member of the National Genealogical Society, read Debbie Mieszala’s “Stop, thief! A plagiarism primer,” in the April-June 2012 NGS News Magazine.12

Now I want to repeat something Randy said: “sharing and collaboration is the best way to interact with other researchers. I really don’t want to ask other searchers to remove my material from their trees, as long as my copyright notice is included in the ‘Story.’”

In other words, give credit where credit is due.

Because doing anything else — taking Randy’s work and putting it online with our family trees without his permission (law) and without giving him credit (ethics) — is theft.

Let’s all work together and stop the thieves — ourselves included.


  1. Randy Seaver, “Should I Add My Own Family Stories to my Ancestry Member Tree?,” Genea-Musings, posted 27 Mar 2014 ( : accessed 30 Mar 2014).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright in General: When is my work protected?,” ( : accessed 30 Mar 2014).
  5. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1: Copyright Basics, PDF version at p. 4 ( : accessed 30 Mar 2014) (“The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U. S. law”).
  6. Ibid., p. 3.
  7. Ibid., p. 7.
  8. Code of Ethics and Conduct,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 30 Mar 2014). This code is also followed by Accredited Genealogists pursuant to the Professional Ethics Agreements of the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists.
  9. Code of Ethics,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 30 Mar 2014).
  10. National Genealogical Society, Standards For Sharing Information With Others, PDF ( : accessed 30 Mar 2014).
  11. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing,” EvidenceExplained ( : accessed 30 Mar 2014).
  12. Debbie Mieszala, “Stop, thief! A plagiarism primer,” 38 National Genealogical Society News Magazine (April-June 2012) 17-20.
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46 Responses to Courtesy, ethics and law

  1. Great Post. What is so difficult about giving others the credit they are due?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t know, Yvette. I really don’t. I know I’ve never refused permission to a genealogist or genealogical society to reprint anything I’ve written, and I’m sure the same is true of Randy and a whole host of writers. It’s easy to ask, easy to give credit.

  2. Judy,

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.


  3. Tony Proctor says:

    I agree about written works Judy, and I say as much in my latest blog post ( However, my post also suggests that mere family trees, being just a collection of facts available in the public domain, are not copyrightable. This was also the subject of Dick Eastman’s latest blog (

    I’m now having doubts about this and I want to explain why. My ancestors were involved in a famous copyright case in the 19th Century, and they lost. I want to write this up properly, later, but the upshot was that although they didn’t pass off the work of someone else as their own, they did use it as a springboard to further their own work. Although that ruling was not meant to cover genealogy, it does sound as though it should have an impact on the click-and-add merchants.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Pure facts certainly can NOT be copyrighted, Tony: you’re right about that. And I’d have to see the case you’re referring to in order to see how it drew the line between what can and can’t be used and whether the basis of the decision has changed with changes in the law.

      • Tony Proctor says:

        I’m not sure if the US has an equivalent case Judy. The English one was Morris.v.Ashbee (1868). I’ll drop you a line when I get around to writing it up. The case is cited in many reference books over here but I think the ruling was a little harsh – it destroyed my ancestor.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Actually, the US has almost an identical case, but what appears to be a much different result. Much later ruling, of course — Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) — but the Supreme Court of the United States held that a purely alphabetical list lacks the originality required for copyright and sweat equity by the original publisher wasn’t relevant to the copyright claim.

        • Tony Proctor says:

          There’s a mention of this case in the latter part of my latest post Judy ( I’d be interested in your thoughts.

          I’ll have a leave a potted history of this ancestor to a future date as I have too much on the go at the moment.

          • Judy G. Russell says:

            Thanks, Tony!

          • Tony and Judy,
            The case Tony cites (based on the description in his blog–I haven’t read the actual case) uses “sweat of the brow” copyright theory to reach its result. The Feist case Judy references was accepted for hearing by the US Supreme Court because there was a split in the circuits on “sweat of the brow” (meaning some accepted it and some didn’t). The Feist decision meant that “sweat of the brow” theory was no longer accepted anywhere in the US–but it was also hugely influential in Europe, with many nations adopting Feist’s logic to also eliminate “sweat of the brow” copyright. To protect “sweat of the brow” (effort and investment) works no longer protected by copyright, the EU introduced the Database Directive as sui generis protection, and member states were to implement it in their respective national laws. I’m fairly sure England followed suit (rejecting “sweat of the brow” copyright and enacting sui generis protection), so Tony’s case today would not be protected by copyright but it would be by sui generis protection. (See, e.g., the Magill case in Ireland, which went to the European Court of Justice, who held that TV listings (like the phone book listings in Feist and the directory listings in Tony’s case) were not copyrightable, and required Ireland to adjust its copyright law / practice to eliminate “sweat of the brow” copyright). Incidentally, the US did not adopt similar sui generis legislation, but leaves it to the parties to provide the protection under contract law–hence the common terms of use language prohibiting “repeated and substantial copying” in language that echoes the EU Database Directive.

            Hope that clarifies the current law, or at least is interesting,
            Claire E. Keenan
            Who was working in copyright in publishing when Feist was decided

          • Judy G. Russell says:

            Thanks for the additional info, Claire!

  4. nancy says:

    Well stated, Judy.

    I know it irritates me no end to see people post copies of photos I KNOW are ones I took (based on angle and lighting) and don’t give attribution. While I like seeing others re-post what I’ve found, doing so with our attribution is just WRONG.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Credit where credit is due. Sigh.

    • Linda says:

      It’s just plain WRONG to republish without permission, regardless of attribution…

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        Not always wrong to republish, Linda. There are exceptions, such as when a Creative Commons license is used. But in this particular case there’s no such license and it is both legally and ethically wrong.

  5. Dave Lucey says:

    Another great post Judy! I think the “answer” to the problem is exactly what you are doing here, awareness and education. Many people just don’t think. It would be wonderful if sites like Ancestry could provide a reminder when you click the “Add a Story” button that one should always give credit and document where the information came from. As it stands now you get this unhelpful reminder: “All content submissions are subject to the Content Submission Agreement, which you have previously accepted.”
    Perhaps they could just put this line from the Content Submission Agreement: “Be aware that content, including photographs, even if submitted to a site of which you are a member, belongs to the creator or submitter and you should not reproduce it without permission of the owner…”

  6. Denise says:

    PEOPLE DON’T THINK! That is not an excuse for for the rampant inclusion of other’s hard work in one’s own family tree – but a reason. In this age of world-wide, 24/7 communication and internet access, people just don’t stop and think about what they are doing. They ASSUME that if they found it on the internet, it must be accurate (LOL) and it must belong to everyone. This is, unfortunately, becoming part of our culture – this total lack of respect for other people’s stuff and other people’s privacy. No one is more grateful than I for the internet resources at my fingertips. My family history narrative wouldn’t be happening without it. But no one is teaching folks where that line in the sand is. No one is teaching our young people when, where and how they can and cannot use what they find on-line for their own advantage. It’s a matter of boundaries – or lack thereof.

  7. Tim Campbell says:

    The great thing about genealogy is that demographics show people of all ages are involved. The down side is that in the “internet age” there seems to be a sense of entitlement without common courtesy.

    For example, I own a number of cemetery transcripts (one for every cemetery in my township, plus) and offer lookup services on a number of websites. With 100+ transcripts I get a steady volume of mail asking for headstone transcriptions. I offer the service free of charge and respond to every email in a timely manner (usually less than 48 hours); but two out of every three never respond to say “Thanks”.

    Issuing a “take down notice” pursuant to the DMCA is useless unless I am in the United States, my content is hosted in the United States and the offender is in the United States. Well, I am not in the United States and have already received more than one rude response to my takedown notice. There is no universal approach.

    Look at the movie and music industry. There are heated debates on both sides of the illegal downloading issue: intellectual property rights versus sense of entitlement. After all, if it’s on the internet, isn’t it suppose to be free? (tongue in cheek)

    What about and the “shaky leaf”? It’s too easy for me to just click and “attach” and my family tree has more content. What do you think your chances are of asking to remove that feature?

    I am afraid that common courtesy and common sense really aren’t that common any more.

  8. Marie Daly says:

    Some of the worst offenders are college professors. They seem to treat research by genealogists and amateur historians as if they are grad students employed by them.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Hmmm… Never had anything of mine stolen by a college professor. Fellow genealogists, however…? Yep.

  9. Thank you, Judy, for another great post. I have been following this discussion since Randy first threw out the question to his readers about his own stories “sprouting” on Ancestry trees and in other places without credit being given to him, the writer. It is really sad, but, I believe as Tim Campbell implied, it’s getting harder to find those with common courtesy and common sense. When I was younger I know I didn’t do everything the way I should have when sourcing my material, but even then I tried to give credit the best way I knew how ~ now with the interest level in genealogy and the resources available to all of us – i.e., The Legal Genealogist and others – we really don’t have an excuse.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Judy. Let’s hope we can all keep getting the message out there… and correct our own mistakes.

  10. Lesley K. Cafarelli says:

    Judy, once again, you captured the key ideas in a nutshell and expressed them so well. Thank you! I just posted a link to your post on Dick Eastman’s blog.

  11. Another excellent article Judy. Is it I wonder if people think that the web is such a big black hole that what they copy will not be seen by the original author and in their mind that makes it “ok”???

  12. Samantha Eastman says:

    To quote from Dick Eastman’s post “Copyrights or no copyrights, any information you give to someone else probably will make its way to a database on the Web sooner or later. Let the sender beware.”

  13. Alice says:

    Do a google search for “Evernote web clipper copyright issues”, and you come up with virtually nothing that addresses the subject at hand.

    Do a google search for “Evernote genealogy”, and you get a host of hits from prolific genealogy bloggers touting Evernote as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Save any portion of any webpage! Save an image of any document you find anywhere! So easy to add everything you find to your collection. So easy to share with family and friends.

    Leaving aside those with nefarious intent, I’d say the biggest problem is that most Ancestry users don’t see attachments to their trees as published material. They see attachments as sharing. Unless & until prominent genealogy educators *and* Ancestry make a concerted effort to change that perception, I don’t see things getting any better.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It will take a lot of education to get people away from the “but it’s online so I can use it” mentality, for sure.

  14. Tim Ballard says:

    I own and have posted a large number of photographs of family members onto my online family tree on There is another member “researching” (I use that term loosely)the same line, who is constantly saving these photos to her tree. However, she copies them to her computer, does a minor edit, then posts them to her tree. By doing this, the caption reflects that she is the original poster of the photo.

    I don’t want to make my tree private because it would defeat the whole purpose of sharing research. It’s driving me nuts.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s so wrong in so many ways, Tim. About the only thing you can do is watermark the images so they won’t be so easy to edit out the credit.

  15. As mentioned above, the notice Ancestry gives when someone attaches a story or photograph to their tree is tepid at best. What I would like to see is something like “STOP! Have you asked permission to use this (story) (photograph)…”
    People with an entitlement perception need to be treated like the brutes they are. One can’t be gentle with them – they need hitting over the head until they get the idea!

  16. WyoSpring says:

    How is it possible to get permission after the person is dead??
    Sad story: I have friends who don’t care about genealogy or photos or postings, and they are trashing all the “stuff” that has been collected after a lifetime of work by a family members. I have seen family genealogies, photos, certificates, etc. at flea markets and thrift stores. I had a family member of “in-law and/or once-removed” come to my house look at an album of photos, documents–copy them–post them on ancestry and yet he didn’t want the actual “stuff.” So I am still looking for an interested family member to GIVE it to and REMOVE it from my house, because I can’t bear to throw it away.

    I am putting all my family 1800′s photos on findagrave and ancestry and will add to familysearch just as fast as I can. I have hundreds and thousands of pictures and documents–my immediate family is in fear of being left with the burden of all this. I know no one else has any of this data and constantly find people are taking them from these 3 sites and posting them elsewhere. So I guess my goal is that someone interested in genealogy will move it along the way after I am gone.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There are sites like Dead Fred and others that may help you reunite some of these older things with related families.

  17. WyoSpring says:

    Oh I forgot, I keep checking the names of this unrelated line, to see if anyone has posted genealogy and may want this box–an antique store would want it just for the “antique pics and documents and frames, etc.” But I am hoping some descendant really cares.

  18. Donna Meszaros says:

    I read this blog post with interest since I have a family website and some pictures taken by me and stories written by me have ended up attached to trees on Ancestry without anyone asking for permission or giving me credit. I noticed that for each picture or story on Ancestry there is a space for public comments in the lower left corner of the page. As I find copies of my work I am adding “photo (or story) copyright Donna Meszaros” and the address of my website to the comments. It only has to be typed once and it appears to be added to every tree that uses my work.

  19. This is a great article and certainly is followed by great discussion comments. Thank you for your contributions to the field of genealogy.

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