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Use, but don’t change, the maps

Like most genealogists, reader Bill Smith is very conscious of the value of maps in his research. But, it occurred to him, there could be issues with using one particular type of map. He wants to use Google Maps to locate small towns and hamlets where his ancestors have lived and his family members now are living.

“What I would like to know,” he asks, is if there are “legal ramifications of copying these maps from Google Maps to my records and reprinting to have physical copy for a more permanent storage?”

Google.mapsGreat question. And The Legal Genealogist is delighted to see that so many people are now stopping to think about the legal issues before they use something — rather than paying the price afterwards.

The answer is that Bill is perfectly free to use maps from Google Maps (the online map service accessed at or Google Earth (the software downloadable at for his purposes– as long as he follows some basic rules.

And we can only wish that Google made it a bit easier to find that out.

The path to an answer here starts with the overall terms of use for Google Maps/Earth — and remember, terms of use are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it. These are limits that are different from copyright protection, since the law says what is and isn’t copyrighted and you can own a thing without owning the copyright. So this isn’t copyright law; it’s contract law — you and whoever owns the thing you want to see or copy or use reach a deal.”1

And the overall terms of use here are almost impenetrable; they read as though almost nothing is allowed without a lot of work:

Unless you have received prior written authorization from Google (or, as applicable, from the provider of particular Content), you must not: (a) copy, translate, modify, or make derivative works of the Content or any part thereof; (b) redistribute, sublicense, rent, publish, sell, assign, lease, market, transfer, or otherwise make the Products or Content available to third parties…2

Reading that, most people might come away thinking that even a single image being used in a genealogy report shared with a family member might violate the rules.

Not so, as Google makes clear — but not there.

There’s a whole separate page of Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth. And in the “Frequently Asked Questions” there, you’ll find clearer — and more favorable — answers. That separate page provides the “prior written authorization from Google” that you need for the uses explained there.

That’s where you’ll find, for example, that you’re perfectly free to use individual images from Google Maps/Earth on your website, perhaps to illustrate a blog post just as the image above (of the location of the Allen County Public Library, site of so many of this week’s activities for the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference) is being used here. And in printed projects like genealogy reports, in genealogy presentations, and in more.

But there are two absolutely critical limits:

You can’t change the images in any way:

Any use of Google Maps and Google Earth must reflect how the products and imagery would look online. For example, you are not allowed to make any changes (e.g. delete, blur, etc.) to our products or imagery that would make these items look genuinely different. This includes, but is not limited to, adding clouds or other natural elements, altered user-interfaces, and modifications that do not appear in the actual product.3

You have to attribute the images:

All uses of Google Maps and Google Earth Content must provide attribution to both Google and our data providers. We do not approve of any use of content without proper attribution, in any circumstance. We require attribution when the Content is shown. Requests for exceptions will not be answered or granted.4

I really want to emphasize this, because Google couldn’t make it clearer that attribution is absolutely required. It adds in the “Frequently Asked Questions” that “Without exception, we require attribution when Content is shown. Please do not ask to negotiate this requirement.”5 And it clarifies for Google Earth: “You can personally use an image from the application (for example on your website, on a blog or in a word document) as long as you preserve the copyrights and attributions including the Google logo attribution.”6

There are other limits spelled out on Google’s permissions page — you can’t create your own map by tracing a Google Map, for example. So anybody who wants to use images from Google Maps or Google Earth should read through the limits carefully.

But within those limits, Google says, you can use images in reports, presentations, on the web, in a print project. You can even use them in an advertisement.7

About the only place you can’t use them is “in items for resale (i.e., t-shirts, beach towels, shower curtains, mugs).”8

So go for it, Bill. Just don’t put your ancestral locations on a t-shirt. Or a shower curtain…


  1. Judy G. Russell, “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  2. Google Maps/Earth Additional Terms of Service,” Last Modified: March 1, 2012 ( : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  3. “May I alter your imagery for my project?,” Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions ( : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  4. Attribution Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions ( : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  5. “Can you give me permission to show your content without attribution, or put the attribution at the end of my book/movie/TV show?,” Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions ( : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  6. Use of Images,” Google Earth Support ( : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  7. “I’d like to use your maps in an advertisement (print or digital). What do I need to know?,” Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth, Google: Permissions ( : accessed 18 Aug 2013).
  8. Ibid., “I’d like to use your maps on a t-shirt. Can I?”
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