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Copyright and sharing

The Legal Genealogist received a question from a reader that can only leave you shaking your head.

“I belong to (a chat group),” she wrote. And, she went on:

We have a (person) who volunteered to moderate one of our chats (who) published (the) chat questions to (the person’s) blog. Instead of emailing the questions to the group, (the person) sent a link to (the) blog post. Because I read my email on my phone, seeing the questions on (the) blog was less than ideal, and I thought I might not be the only one having this issue. So I shared (the) questions with the group via our email list, thinking it would be okay since the questions were intended for our group. (The moderator) accused me of copyright infringement, which was not at all my intention, and I am wondering if I did violate (the) copyright since the material I shared was intended for our group anyway. I just want to be sure I don’t do something like this again if I am truly breaking the law.

Now you can see that I’m trying hard to eliminate anything that might identify either the reader or the moderator, because I truly think both sides here are trying hard to do the right thing.

1000px-US-CopyrightOffice-Seal.svgThe moderator really does have a copyright in anything the moderator writes and posts.1

Folks who agree to moderate chat groups — in a wide variety of fields — often get nothing for their work except perhaps a few more readers for their work, and it may well have been that the moderator here was hoping to pick up a few more blog readers by using a link to the blog rather than sending the questions by email.

And the reader now knows that the way to deal with this situation in the future is always to ask for permission to share something someone else has written.

That permission constitutes a license from the copyright owner to the reader allowing the reader to copy or redistribute the item, and those are two of the rights that copyright law gives exclusively to the author of the work.2

But we really shouldn’t have to be here, talking about this sort of thing in the context of copyright law.

We all — every last one of us — content creators and content users — need to be reasonable about our expectations and we need to tell the people we work with just what our expectations are.

If we are content creators — writers or photographers or artists — we certainly have the legal right to expect that our copyright will be respected.

But if we are working with a group, we really need to understand that group members have a reasonable expectation that something meant for the group can be shared within the group without worrying about copyright.

If I’m asked, as a photographer, to take pictures during a genealogy conference, isn’t it reasonable for the person who asked me to expect to be able to use those pictures in the host society’s newsletter without worrying about my copyright?

If I’m moderating a group that discusses, say, new books about crime, and I write up a list of things we should discuss at our next meeting about a particular new crime book, isn’t it reasonable for every group member to expect to be able to share that list with every other group member?

In some situations, just agreeing to do something can easily be understood by the group members as giving permission — and that’s a reasonable conclusion for the group members to reach.

So, as content creators, when we’re working with a group, we need to take just a second and make it clear if there’s something we don’t want the members of that specific group to do with our work:

• A quick note by a chat moderator that said — for example — “I’m putting the questions on the blog and I want everyone to access them there so please don’t resend by email” would make the moderator’s views clear.

• A statement by a photographer that said “Sure I’ll take the photos, but print only the ones I approve and make sure you give me credit” would make those limits clear.

Obviously I myself am a content creator: I write this blog, I give lectures, I do webinars. I really get where content creators come from and the need we all have to protect our copyrights.

But I am also a content user as a genealogist, and I’m a member of a lot of groups. And in a group setting I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the group to expect to be able to share more freely than, say, a bunch of strangers might expect to, without worrying about threats of copyright suits.

So let’s all be reasonable, okay? As content users, if we always remember to ask whenever we’re not sure, then we’re reasonable. And as content creators, let’s take that extra minute to make it clear if there’s something we’re doing with a group and we don’t want it shared outside the group or in a particular way even inside the group.


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