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Following up

Yesterday, The Legal Genealogist took on the topic of the copyright that genealogical speakers have in their lectures, slides and handouts. The impetus was last week’s combined Federation of Genealogical Societies and RootsTech conference, and the seemingly rampant view there that it was perfectly okay to copy everything a speaker did and pass it along to friends.1

copyrightAnd, as often happens, shortly after the post appeared a question popped into my email box that shows that we’re just not doing a good enough job of educating people about the law and the ethics of copying other people’s work.

The question came from a reader who was honestly perplexed about the whole issue. She was very careful to cite her sources, she said, and she thought that was enough.

“If we credit the speaker or lecturer, and share it with a friend or group, are we infringing on your copyright?” she asked. “Must we ask permission if credit is given?”

The question is a common one, and it underscores what is perhaps the most common misconception about copyright law: lots of people think that there can’t be a copyright issue if we credit the creator of the work.

It’s just not so.

Giving credit to the person who created the work we’re using — whether it’s a photograph or a lecture — is an essential part of good genealogical practice. But it’s not a substitute for paying attention to, and abiding by, copyright law. Giving credit saves us from a claim of plagiarism — of passing off someone else’s work as our own. But it won’t save us from a lawsuit for copyright infringement, since copyright protects an entirely different interest.

Let’s define terms.

Plagiarism is “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.”2 When we reproduce work someone else has created, we avoid plagiarism by putting the creator’s name on it, giving credit where credit is due.

Copyright, on the other hand, is “the legal right to be the only one to reproduce, publish, and sell a book, musical recording, etc., for a certain period of time.”3 Note that phrase: “the only one to reproduce” the work. Not “the only one unless credit is given.” The only one, period.4

Think about it for a minute. Say you’ve just taken a prize-winning photograph. What copyright does is say that, for some period of time, you’re the only one who gets to decide whether it’s copied, under what circumstances, and by whom. Nobody can take your photograph and use it to, say, advertise a commercial product — and get away with it just by making sure your name is still attached to the photo.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t carefully and consistently cite everything we use as genealogists. To the contrary, full, accurate source citations are an element of the Genealogical Proof Standard.5 Our own genealogical work does not meet the best practices of our field if we don’t cite our sources.

Giving credit to others whose work we rely on is also part of the ethical standards of genealogy. Every single code of ethics governing our field requires that we give credit:

• Board-certified genealogists pledge that: “I will identify my sources for all information and cite only those I have personally used.” And they pledge that: “In citing another’s work, I will give proper credit.”6

• Members of the Association of Professional Genealogists promise to “Give proper credit to those who supply information and provide assistance.”7

• The ethics code of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies provides that “If data presented relies on work already previously undertaken, the credit for such work should be given to the originator.”8

• The National Genealogical Society’s standards for genealogical research provide that“ family history researchers consistently … state carefully and honestly the results of their own research, and acknowledge all use of other researchers’ work.”9

But giving credit isn’t the same as respecting another person’s copyright.

They’re two entirely different concepts, and we are not protected from a copyright infringement suit just because we gave credit to the creator of the work.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Copyright and the genealogy lecture,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 Feb 2015 ( : accessed 19 Feb 2015).
  2. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 19 Feb 2015), “plagiarism.”
  3. Ibid., “copyright.”
  4. There are statutory exceptions, and the big one is fair use. See 17 U.S.C. §107. That’s a topic for another day, and not what we’re dealing with here.
  5. See Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014), at 5 (“The Genealogical Proof Standard requires complete and accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item supporting a claim that a conclusion is proved”).
  6. Board for Certification of Genealogists, “Code of Ethics and Conduct” ( : accessed 19 Feb 2015).
  7. Association of Professional Genealogists, “Code of Ethics” ( : accessed 19 Feb 2015).
  8. International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, “IAJGS Ethics for Jewish Genealogists” ( : accessed 19 Feb 2015).
  9. National Genealogical Society, Standards For Sound Genealogical Research ( : accessed 19 Feb 2015).
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