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Don’t post Ellis Island site images

SS Geo Washington, image NOT from

Terms of use (or terms of service) are a real issue for genealogists, and The Legal Genealogist began an occasional series on terms of use back on April 27 with “A terms of use intro.”1

As a quick reminder, terms of use are the agreements we are asked to abide by when we access information — even information that is purely factual and/or purely in the public domain — on a website.

Today, next in this occasional series, we’re going to look at the terms of use of a website many genealogists use and where we may not stop and think about the restrictions the website has imposed on the use of its information: it’s the website of the The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (SOLEIF), on the web at

Now SOLEIF is a private foundation working in partnership with the National Park Service to restore both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.2 Its website contains “25 million arrival records and over 900 ships of passage pictures in the Ellis Island Archives” and the intent of the website is to make those records “available to everyone.”

Not so fast. Available, yes. Useful, maybe not. And that’s because of that website’s terms of use.

In particular, the terms of service provide that “you may use, access, download, copy, store, manipulate, reformat, print or display any Information (from the website) and solely for your personal, non-commercial use” and that “you may not otherwise copy, download, store, manipulate, reformat, distribute, display, publish (including, but not limited to, on the internet), create a derivative work from, resell or make any commercial use of, or make any other use of, the Service or any Information contained therein.”3

What that means, in plain English, is that you can find the record showing your grandfather’s arrival in the United States and download a copy to your computer for your own personal use. You can print a copy and hang it on your wall, but you may not post it in your blog or on your website or send a copy to Aunt Mabel in Seattle. Not because the record is copyrighted — it’s not, since U.S. government records created by govenmernt employees for governmental purposes can’t be copyrighted — but because your contract with that website says you can’t.

There happens to be a good reason for this restriction: the Foundation is supported by selling copies of the ship manifests and images, and if folks just grabbed them and posted them online without restrictions, the Foundation’s income would be severely hampered. So it simply doesn’t allow general use of the actual images it posts on its site.

Like most other websites, the Ellis Island website says you can go ahead and ask for permission to make other uses of the information. It provides contact information on the site and specific information as to how to get broader permissions (“please contact SOLEIF by writing to SOLEIF Copyright Agent, 17 Battery Place #210, New York, NY 10004”).

But the bottom line is, if you use, don’t post the images from that site on your website, or your blog, or anywhere else online. If you do, the Foundation, “in its sole discretion, may terminate your access to the Service, or any portion thereof, without notice for any reason, including but not limited to if SOLEIF believes that you have breached these Terms of Service. SOLEIF may, in its sole discretion at any time, change the content or services offered on the Service or discontinue providing the Service, or any portion thereof, without notice.”4

Take it or leave it.


Image source: Wikimedia Commons, citing U.S. government sources.

  1. A terms of use intro,The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012.
  2. See “About the Foundation,” ( : accessed 7 May 2012).
  3. Terms of Use,” ( : accessed 7 May 2012).
  4. Ibid.
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