Nothing wrong with wanting a return
Reader Ruth is offended when people post things on the internet and don’t make it easy for others to use them:
I’ve noticed that some people claim “ownership” of photos of documents– they either claim the photo is copyrighted, or they somehow superimpose something over the photo that shows they “own” it….
I understand a photo studio doing something like that— I know for example that Olan Mills has ownership and copyright of the photos taken of my family back in the 70’s. But if I go to my local branch of the National Archives, and I take a photo of someone’s WWI draft card, or their naturalization petition, do I “own” that photo? Is it legal/fair/appropriate/honest etc to claim ownership of the photo? I’ve sometimes found photographs of vital records, letters, immigration paperwork etc, on someone’s blog, but they’ve written the name of their website/blog diagonally across the entire face of the photo of the document, so that it sort of ruins the photo.
She explained that: “in part anyway, I just don’t understand the POINT of it. I frequently make trips to the branch of the National Archives near me, and I take photographs of documents for people who are hoping to find information about their ancestry, ALL THE TIME– and when I send them the photos, I don’t write my name across it and ruin the photo for them, nor do I claim to ‘own’ the photograph or try to copyright it.”
The Legal Genealogist understands this viewpoint… but doesn’t entirely share it.
So let’s work through this.
First off, let’s dispose of the copyright issue. Nobody can copyright a photograph of something someone else has created when all they are doing is trying to exactly reproduce what some other person has created. Making a copy — by photography or any other means — doesn’t change the fact that it’s still something someone else has created.
And only the creator can copyright that work. That right to copyright protection is one of the exclusive rights given by copyright law to the creator and only the creator.1
So no, nobody can justifiably claim copyright in a plain vanilla photograph he or she took of a document at the National Archives — or anywhere else, for that matter. Nobody, that is, who didn’t create the document itself.
The real issue here is the right of the photographer to restrict and control the use of this copy of this photograph, not the right to copyright it and control all uses of any copy of the document.
So… you have someone who went to the effort to obtain a document or to otherwise create a record.
That person may have spent a very large amount of money to do that. Travel costs to a particular archive are never cheap, so doing it in person can be very expensive. The person may have hired a professional to get the record, which isn’t cheap. Even getting it from the National Archives isn’t chump change: a land record is $50, others run $70, a pension file can be well over $100.
And that person who spent the money, or even just spent the time and effort, puts it online — but doesn’t make it easy for everyone else to simply take it. He or she does what I did with the image on this blog post: watermark it so that it can’t be simply taken and used.2
And there isn’t anything at all that’s wrong with that. It’s perfectly legal — and it isn’t at all unfair.
Because nobody has a right to anyone else’s work.
And that includes the photographs and copies of documents that others have accumulated — and paid for.
The person who took the photograph or got the document may want others to share something in return — such as whatever family information we have about our part of the family in return for getting an unwatermarked copy of the photograph of that document.
That’s perfectly reasonable, it’s perfectly legal — and yes, it is fair.
The person may want to be sure the document is used properly — linked to the right person on a family tree and not to the wrong person, for example.
That’s perfectly reasonable, it’s perfectly legal — and yes, it is fair.
And the person may want to control who uses this particular copy of this particular photograph (particularly if it’s a family photograph) and how it’s used.
And that too is perfectly reasonable, it’s perfectly legal — and yes, it is fair.
Because — let me repeat — nobody has a right to anyone else’s work.
Yes, we are a sharing community. Yes, we collaborate with others. But we don’t have to share if we choose not to. We don’t have to share without conditions and controls. We don’t have to share when those who want us to share offer nothing in return.
There’s nothing at all wrong with putting a watermark on a photograph of a document posted online — and asking for something in return for providing an unwatermarked copy.
Sharing is, or ought to be, two-way.
- See generally U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1: Copyright Basics, PDF version at p. 2 (http://www.copyright.gov : accessed 19 July 2016. ↩
- See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 19 July 2016), “watermark.” ↩
Couldn’t agree more Judy. Much of what I have among my folders has been gained at significant expense of travel, money, time and some expertise. Do I HAVE to share it? No I don’t. Least of all when past experience has taught me that giving such information/images to others, simply results in a cut and run….without even a thank you or acknowledgment.
A further point is that, in Australia at least, official documents may come with a copyright clause/notation and that an archive may have required you to sign an agreement form re use of their documents and copies.
As you’ve mentioned if you, or I, take a photo ourselves that is copyrighted and we can quite legitimately watermark it as such.
Sharing works well when both parties understand the courtesies and obligations involved.
Thanks for adding those points, Pauleen.
I have wondered if I am being too stingy with people I am corroborating with. I try and honor the rules of copyright.
Personal family photos from generations past are ok to share.
Commercial photos from generations past should not be shared. I did get a release for an Olan Mills photo from 1962 so Walgreens would copy it about 20 years ago. or modern wedding photos my extended family always purchases the release.
In a few cases the photography studio owner is a long dead family ancestor and we have shared those photos.
I share original Birth, wedding, and Cemetery deeds that are in my family records. Some more than 100 years old.
I am willing to share but am not sure if it is legal to share vital records I have purchased from U.S. state, county and town government agencies. I have not done so
I am willing to share but am not sure if it is legal to share vital records I have purchased from the U.K. GRO. I have not done so.
Anything I find on Ancestry I share both a screen shot of the document and the link where it came from. People I am working with are also Ancestry subscribers.
Research I paid for in the UK, came back covered in DO NOT COPY stamps. From both Private and official government research agencies. I even feel guilty making electronic back-ups and do not include the documents in my tree documentation.
A family photo I donated to a Connecticut historical museum popped up on the internet with the museum’s watermark which surprised me. I did not make any stipulations when I answered a call for pictures. I am not sure how/why the museum claimed a copyright.
You’re not being “too stingy” at any level that you’re comfortable with. And watermarking isn’t the same as claiming copyright; it’s saying “this is mine” (ownership of this copy not copyright).
I understand your reluctance to share the images you have paid for or that are marked do not copy, and respect it. I have learned my lesson – a cousin I have never met took all the years of research I had done and shared with him and put a tree on Ancestry without asking me or even notifying me! I chose not to put my research on Ancestry for particular reasons – some of which Judy has discussed. However, if you have entered information in your tree I would think you would want the document listed as a source – just not shared with an image. Then those that really have an interest can order the document for themselves and you and your descendants have the information regarding where you found your documentation. I do not use an Ancestry Tree so my issues are quite different. I hope you also use another tree software where you feel free to put in everything and as a backup for the future. If you do you can have control over what you want to share and what you don’t. At least with the program I use.
Of course, much of what I spent ordering records not that many years ago is now available online!
If you are stingy so am I – and less trusting after the action of my cousin.
Interesting distinction between ownership and copyright. I looked at the museum website again. It credits my father for taking the picture and me for submitting the picture. The bottom of the photo is printed with the name of the museum and copyright 2009 All rights reserved.
The museum website has what’s called a compilation copyright — and ONLY a compilation copyright — unless your father (or you as his heir) transferred the copyright to the museum in writing.
I don’t believe, even in the US, that compilation copyright would apply to a simple online collections website, unless the image in question had been ‘creatively’ arranged into some sort of other display with other images. I may be wrong though.
As someone who works on a museum, the most likely scenario is that their collections system (or whatever delivers it to the website) either doesn’t allow granular control of copyright, or they simply don’t put effort into setting it on an image-by-image basis. Whichever is the case, I would at least expect their terms to say ‘unless otherwise specified’ and then the description on images like this have any particular restrictions. Unless, as Judy points out, copyright was transferred.
Good article. As to a specific situation, I believe that a person seeking to download pictures of tombstones uploaded to Find A Grave should obtain permission of the person who took the picture. A name and link can generally be found below the picture.
See also http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=listFaqs#196
“What is your copyright policy?
Content, other than items of fact, which has been contributed to Find A Grave by members remain the property of the submitter and Find A Grave is the licensed distributor of such content. . . .”
I;ve written about the Find A Grave terms frequently. See e.g. Find A Grave terms 2014 style.
Always a tough issue Judy. Thank you for explaining in terms we can all easily understand.
Could I ask who took the photograph used to illustrate this article and what the copyright status is please? I presume it must be one of your direct ancestors and copyright has passed to you, but it would seem sensible to clearly attribute it in that way.
It isn’t relevant to the subject, and so isn’t attributed any more than I would bother attributing any other licensed image. But if you were thinking of using the image, then I will clarify that yes these are my family members and I do own the copyright.
Thanks for the clarification. I think it might have proved an interesting point to have given what you consider ‘best practise’ attribution on that image. It’s really fascinating to read this post and more specifically the comment threads to see the huge cultural differences between the US and Europe, and perhaps also between communities such and genealogists and the cultural heritage sector.
Thank you, Judy. This is just what I needed. I have spent a lot of money in obtaining documents that some expect me to copy for them for free.
Those expectations are not reasonable.
Judy, thank you for this article. You have covered inheriting photographs, haven’t you? I can’t find the post if you did. Could you direct me?
Check the discussion in Copyright and the sale of rights.
I understand that it would have detracted from the main point of the post, but I’d have liked seeing at least an asterisked comment (worded more accurately than I’m doing) that nobody has the right to someone else’s work *unless* they paid for it, have a contract, etc.
Absolutely, Dave: if you bought the right to have or use something, then that should go without saying.
Judy, thank for this latest update re photos/copyright/sharing..ect I/we have contacted libraries and archives, having to “buy” access to family pictures & documents -that were donated to the institution (by family), for use in a family research-history book.
And that’s the way to acquire the right to use images: buy a license.
This post might help me answer my questions that I have. I collect old maps and like to study them as well. There are a few companies that make digital copies of maps and then sell them at huge prices, far more then just buying an original itself.
Say I have a map from the 1700s that was published in an atlas. I make a scan of the map and put it on the internet for people to look at and use. I know I do not own the copyright on the image since I didn’t create the map, and as you say I would be free to put a watermark on the image. If I charge someone to send them a copy free of the watermark, could they then use the image as they see fit?
What if I bought an image from a company of the same map sans watermark, would I then be able to do as I wish with the image? Most of the companies that do this either state they own the copyright on the image or say you’re only allowed to do certain things with the image.
I guess I didn’t ask the question correctly. If the company has a map that is out of copyright and they make a copy of it, the copy can not be copyrighted correct?
Part of the reason I wonder about this is because I make maps for the Feds, our maps can not be copyrighted, but I’ve seen plenty of cases where a company will take a map, take the logo off the map and then claim copyright on the map while doing nothing original. It seems companies can get around copyright laws when it seems they shouldn’t be able to.
Question. Annie takes a photo of Aunt Suzie’s tombstone. That’s fine. Then blocks anyone from using that. Okay, I am a relative also of Aunt Suzie’s and I travel 10 miles to visit her gravesite. I visit on a day that also has lots of sunshine, I find the gravesite and stand in a position to photograph the headstone myself. Now, so I automatically lost the rights to my photo which looks identical to Annies? I went to the trouble to also find and photograph the headstone but because they look identical I cannot use mine? What’s up with that.
Nope, you don’t lose a thing. You’d better make sure you have metadata showing the second photo is yours and not hers, but you have every right to use yours.
Judy, thank you for another great article on so-called “sharing”. When we have a physical possession, say an original document or even a copy of a document, everyone understands that taking that item without permission is not “sharing”. It’s stealing. Put that same item on the internet and suddenly this strange notion that if we don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry to take it and use it without permission that we are “not sharing”. Really? Again, if I have a physical possession and I show it to every Tom, Dick and Harry, I “shared” it. And it’s the same online – it was “shared” by being displayed (shown).
Hi Judy, I’m always glad to read when you write on this topic. When others give me family photos or I find them online I ask if they mind if I share the images including on my blog and social media. I like to make sure they are happy and confident in what I might plan to do with the images. For me it is not always about copyright or others work but playing nice.
With some photos they might not be the original owner so you cannot be sure the correct person is being asked. I had one case where they went back to the source and got permission for me.
On the discussions on watermarks – I will use these so if someone shares and it is seen by a “cousin” they can contact me and I am happy to swap and share sources, etc. It is unfortunate some think water marking is about defining ownership when it is not always the case. It is an address.
I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2016/07/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-july-22-2016.html
Have a great weekend!
Totally agree! Thank you for this explanation. I have had a family website since 2000. Some people have contacted me and asked for permission and sent things to me to include on the website as well. Others have just taken things without permission and posted them on pay site where I have found them attached to the wrong person. I contacted one of the people who did this and asked her nicely to at least change it to the real person. No amount of explaining that a person who died in 1850 Illinois could not have possibly taken out a bank loan in 1932 Oklahoma. She would not change it at all. So now I am revamping the website where no one can just download the documents and use them without my knowledge or permission. I will share but I want the documents and information used correctly!
As a former professional photographer, and still active taking photographs of insects, I approve of the copyright laws, and support them. Their are some issues I would like to point out. When my mother was put in a care facility due to advance alzheimer’s my youngest sister burned all the photographs mother had collected from the early 1850’s to 2000 because they were all dead people and now one would be interested in them. Some of them were from Olan Mills, and studio’s that are still in business, but they were the only photographs I have ever seen. So – was she right? She knew I did genealogy, and I feel it was hard feelings against me that she destroyed a never to be recovered treasure.
There is no justification for such wanton destruction.
How about Creative Commons? None of us will be able to take documents and pictures to our graves…
That absolutely is an option, Anneliese, but won’t work if what you really want is to ensure that somebody will at least try to contact you before using the picture. For that, watermarking works best.
Well here’s my 2 cents worth. I have a very large tree, built over many years, and I have tried to incorporate photos left to me and identified by my parents. I have had had a public family web site, created by me which has photos throughout. Many relatives that I have never met have copied information and photos and that’s okay, for the most part. After all that’s what it’s all about. But I have also noticed some of my family photos identified as someone in other families unknown to me. Evidently they saw someone at my web site and decided that must be what their great grandpa looked like or what they would like for him to look like and just stole the photo. They also steal documentation as well. It makes the whole process seem tainted and at cross ends with itself.
It does make things frustrating, I know. It’s hard sometimes to balance the fact that we really do want to share, and to encourage others to share with us, and the fact that some folks are willing to “share” what isn’t theirs at all!
Thank you for the articles and the discussions. Could you please explain where copyright ends. I understand that it finishes 70 years after the last author dies. How does this affect family history writing ?
Family history writing is no different from any other writing: for anything written after 1978, copyright in the written product ends 70 years after the death of the last author. There’s no exception for family history as a genre.
And all that information is why I do not put any family tree information on the internet. Some family info is already on by others and is incorrect; information shared with a distant ‘cousin’ was for a booklet celebrating his uncle’s 80th Birthday. I did not receive a copy of the booklet, so now I am reluctant to share anything.
I have a distant in-law family member who is with “My Heritage” she had downloaded everything of mine from my tree including my photos without my permission, These people are my mother, grandfather & grandmother, and they were in her name. When I tried to contact her to straighten this out I was told that I was unable to do this unless I took out their most expensive membership. I wrote and asked why and how this was but “My Heritage” told me because it is in her name. I have not mutually confirmed anything with her or others. How is this possible? they tell me to be kind and help them, very one sided for a pensioner who cannot afford the money they ask for my own Tree. Eventually these people asked that I take screen shots of the direct links I was talking about and they would help me. I have no idea how to go about this, wouldn’t it have been easier for them to allow a contact message from me to this person? What rights does one have concerning this attitude?
Unfortunately, facts can’t be copyrighted so the facts that may have been in your tree can’t be protected. The other items — photos and the like — may very well be copyright protected and those you CAN address with MyHeritage’s legal team.