Select Page

No, really, honestly, the fact that it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean you can copy it.

Adult bald eagle fishing

Copyrighted or not?

One of the biggest legal issues we genealogists confront on a day-to-day basis is the issue of copyright protection. I have a few questions in the queue that I’m working on as to what can’t and can’t be done while respecting another’s copyright, but there’s one aspect of this issue I think we tend to overlook:

As genealogists, we also have our own individual intellectual property rights — our own copyrights in our own work (in our writing and in the photos we take) — that we can and should protect as well.

Think, for example, of archives of published articles such as those recently posted by Elizabeth Shown Mills on her wonderful new website Historic Pathways. Think about the careful proof arguments that we work on and write up and post for others to learn from and comment on. And think about things like photographs we take to illustrate our research — or even just for our own enjoyment.

I thoroughly annoyed some dude earlier this month with my response to a comment he posted to a personal blog I have. I had posted there the image you see here, a photo I took on a trip to Alaska last year. He wrote:

Am writing to request permission to use one of your pictures in my personal profile on facebook … I have made some modifications to the original image. I hope you will approve. Thank you for sharing …

Not so fast, kimosabe.

Let’s start with a few basic facts:

     • 1. The instant I took that picture, I owned the copyright.1

     • 2. My copyright has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office (with the rest of the images I took that day, see the gallery here). But it didn’t have to be.2

     • 3. This copy of the photo has my copyright statement, but it doesn’t have to have one.3

     • 4. My copyright lasts not only for my lifetime, but for 70 years after I die.4

So what does my copyright mean? Pure and simple, I have the exclusive right to say what can and can’t be done with that photograph. There are exceptions, with the big one being fair use.5 Trust me on this one: snagging 100% of somebody else’s photo for your own website or web account ain’t fair use.

And so where did the dude go wrong? Ah, let me count the ways.

First, he didn’t get my permission to use the image. In fact, what he was asking for wasn’t permission. It was forgiveness. He had already taken the image without asking, changed it to suit his preferences, and posted it (turns out not only on Facebook but on his Twitter page as well).

Second, he had changed the image. Period. The Copyright Office makes this clear: “Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work.”6

Third, he assumed that my “sharing” the picture on my personal blog was also “sharing” the right to use it. Nope. Remember: the image is mine. I can use it. But nobody else can unless I say so.

Fourth, he assumed that because he said where he got the picture, he wasn’t violating my copyright. Nope again. All he did by saying where he got it was not pass it off as his own work. Saying “I copied this from you” is still copying it, and that violates the rights of the copyright holder.

Fifth, he gave me no reason for saying yes to him. I don’t know this dude. I have no clue who he is or what he does for a living or what use he might make of the sites where the photo would be or what he might or might not post on those pages. Maybe I would have been willing to have my photo associated with that… and maybe not.7

And sixth, I must confess, he annoyed me. He didn’t ask for permission in advance, he changed the image (hey! what was wrong with it as it was, darn it?) and he got snotty when I said he couldn’t use it. (Asking “did you ask the eagle for permission before you photographed it?” is not the way to win friends and influence people.) I had to threaten to get Facebook involved to get him to remove the image from his pages.

All that being said, I do appreciate the fact that he asked at all. But I was and am uncomfortable in having my work (and my name) associated with people I don’t know and whose personal, political, moral or other positions may well be antithetical to my own.

Taking a hard line on copyright isn’t an easy position for a genealogist to take. As a group, we are and we should be sharers. But there’s a difference between sharing facts (which, by the way, can’t be copyrighted anyway8) and having what we’ve done stolen. When we do important work of our own, we have the right to keep control of that work, and it’s important to draw the line and say no.

So… got that, dude? Next time, go take your own pictures.


  1. U.S. Copyright Office, Copyright Basics ( : accessed 19 Feb 2012) at 2 (“Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work.”).
  2. Ibid., at 3 (“No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright.”).
  3. Ibid., at 4 (“The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U. S. law, although it is often beneficial.”).
  4. Ibid., at 4 (“A work that was created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death.”).
  5. See generally U.S. Copyright Office, Fair Use ( : accessed 19 Feb 2012).
  6. How much do I have to change in order to claim copyright in someone else’s work?,” Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright, U.S. Copyright Office ( : accessed 19 Feb 2012).
  7. I have given permission to folks who asked to use an image exactly twice. The photos were of the 9/11 Tribute of Lights in New York City. One permission went to a municipal memorial committee for its program, the other to Yale University for a similar purpose.
  8. What does copyright protect?,” Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright, U.S. Copyright Office ( : accessed 19 Feb 2012).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email