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The same rules. Really.

The Legal Genealogist was dismayed to hear the comment, made by one of the many thousands of people who attended last week’s combined Federation of Genealogical Societies – RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City.

But no, dear conference goer, actually, it’s not okay.

It’s not okay to use your cellphone or your tablet to record every word a genealogical speaker says at a conference lecture.

It’s not okay to take pictures of every slide (or even any of the slides).

And it’s not okay to take the handout prepared for the lecture and reproduce it to share it with others.

3D White People. Man Giving A ConferenceThe conference goer last week couldn’t make it to a particular session. But she’d heard good things about that presentation. So she asked someone who had attended to give her a copy of the handout so she could share it with the members of her home society.

When another attendee suggested that perhaps that wasn’t appropriate, she was quite indignant.

“I paid for the conference,” she said. “So it’s okay.”

No, dear conference goer, actually, it’s not okay.

What the lecturer has — with respect to the lecture itself, the slides used to illustrate the lecture on the screen, and the handout — is a copyright.

And when you, dear conference goer, tape or photograph or copy the lecturer’s work, what you’ve done isn’t okay — it’s a copyright violation.

Copyright under United States law exists the minute the lecturer prepares that lecture: the text, the slides, the handout are all covered the instant they exist in some tangible form.1

It’s not necessary for the lecturer to register the copyright in the U.S. Copyright Office.2

It’s not necessary for the lecturer to make an announcement that the lecture is copyright-protected or to include a copyright statement (or that little © symbol) on the slides or on the handout.3

All that’s necessary is that the work be the original work of the person creating it and that it be in some tangible form — which includes even a digital file that exists nowhere except on the lecturer’s computer hard drive.4

And once it exists in that format, the lecturer owns the copyright for the lecturer’s lifetime — and the lecturer’s estate or heirs own it for another 70 years after the lecturer’s death.5

That original work of the lecturer is the lecturer’s intellectual property. It’s no different from any other type of copyrighted material. It’s hard work to produce a good lecture, and it gets the same protection as a book or a movie or any other creative endeavor.

If you, dear conference goer, sat in a movie theater and taped the movie, and then shared it with your friends, the studio that produced the movie could — and would — sue you for at least the statutory damages provided for in the law: up to $150,000 for a single violation if a court were to find that the violation was willful and up to $30,000 otherwise.6

You face exactly the same penalty if you sit in a lecture and tape it or photograph it or copy the handout and share that with your friends. And keep in mind that the societies that put together conferences and publish the syllabus materials in book or booklet form or as a downloadable PDF file have a compilation copyright in the entire book/booklet or file.7

The same goes for a webinar or other presentation that was videotaped or audiotaped: it’s all under copyright. And just as buying the book doesn’t give us the right to copy it and give copies to our friends, buying a lecture tape (audio or video) doesn’t give us the right to copy that and share it with our friends either.

It’s not just that it’s legally wrong; it’s ethically wrong too. The ethical standards of our field are clear about this point as well.8

So no, dear conference goer, actually, it’s not okay to simply take a lecturer’s work. If you want to copy any part of a lecture, or the lecturer’s handout, ask for permission. And if the lecturer is kind enough to grant permission, stay within the scope of the permission granted (as an example, if the lecturer says it’s okay to use one photo, it means one photo).

Getting permission, and staying within the terms of what the lecturer permits, is the right thing — and the legal thing — to do.


  1. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1: Copyright Basics, PDF version at 2 ( : accessed 17 Feb 2015) (“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. See 17 U.S.C. § 101 (“Definitions: fixed”).
  5. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1: Copyright Basics, PDF version 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.”)
  6. See 17 U.S.C. § 504(c) (“Statutory damages”).
  7. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 14: Copyright in Derivative Works and Compilations, PDF version at 1 ( : accessed 17 Feb 2015).
  8. See e.g. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Code of Ethics ( : accessed 17 Feb 2015) (“I will not reproduce for public dissemination, in an oral or written fashion, the work of another genealogist, writer, or lecturer without that person’s written consent. In citing another’s work, I will give proper credit.”).
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