Ask before you use
It’s come up yet again in our community and The Legal Genealogist is going to try, one more time (and as often as needed in the future) to get this straight.
It’s generally not okay to take something we find online and simply use it.
A colleague in the genealogical community posted on Facebook that an image he had created had appeared, without credit or permission, on a page of another member of the genealogical community.
It wasn’t that he objected to its use: had he been asked, he would have given permission.
But he wasn’t asked, and the way the image appeared on the other page, it looked like it might be the work of the other person.
In every possible way, that’s wrong.
I can’t repeat this often enough — or strongly enough.
It’s wrong to take someone else’s work and use it without getting permission and giving whatever credit the creator wants given.
Citing the original source isn’t enough by itself; getting permission without giving credit isn’t enough. To avoid issues of copyright infringement on one side (permission) and plagiarism on the other (crediting the creator), we’re not doing our job as users of someone else’s work unless we do both.
Now I understand and get it — when we see something online that we want to use, we want to use it. A photograph someone has taken. An image someone has created using an art program. Even a photo of a document someone has retrieved from an archive. We want to pass these things around freely.
After all, we’re just sharing, right?
Taking someone else’s work and using it ourselves — even if it’s not for commercial gain — isn’t sharing.
Oh we can wrap it up in fancy words like “plagiarism”: “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.”1 And it is surely that when we make no effort to credit the person who did all the research and all the hard work. Anybody who’s suffering from even a momentary confusion as to just what plagiarism is can get a great education by reading Elizabeth Shown Mills’ “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing.”2 Or we would call it “copyright infringement”: “The unauthorized use of a work that violates the owners’ copyrights (their rights to exclusive use of the work).”3
But using fancy terms obscures what’s really going on so very often in our community.
What we’re seeing, all too often, is theft. Somebody stealing somebody else’s work: somebody else’s words, somebody else’s photographs.
And it’s wrong.
It violates every ethics code our community has:
• The National Genealogical Society’s Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others notes that “responsible family historians consistently— identify the sources for all ideas, information and data from others, and the form in which they were received, recognizing that the unattributed use of another’s intellectual work is plagiarism.4
• The Code of Conduct of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies provides that “If data presented relies on work already previously undertaken, proper credit for such work should be given to the originator…”5
• The code of ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists requires Board-certified genealogists to pledge that: “I will not represent as my own the work of another. … In citing another’s work, I will give proper credit.”6
• The code of ethics of the Association of Professional Genealogists requires members to promise to “Give proper credit to the work of others and refrain from plagiarism.”7
All of us, as responsible genealogists, individually and as a group, can act to keep on the straight and narrow path here.
First and foremost, in our own work, we need to cite our sources even in our own private research notes or genealogy database entries. That will keep us from even inadvertently passing off someone else’s work as our own. Someone else’s work should never be incorporated into our own without credit being given.
Secondly, when we want to use that work for publication — and that includes even sharing it with our families and friends, we will often need to ask permission since in many cases our use goes beyond what the law allows as fair use.
And thirdly, we need to stop looking the other way. It’s time for our community as a whole to stop thinking of this as “just sharing” and to start yelling, “Stop, thief!” We need to stop tolerating it and excusing it when someone copies someone else’s work.
Because it’s not sharing when we use someone else’s work without both getting permission and giving credit.
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 27 Sep 2017), “plagiarism.” ↩
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/ : accessed 27 Sep 2017). ↩
- Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 27 Sep 2017), “infringement (of copyright).” ↩
- National Genealogical Society, Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others, PDF (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ : accessed 27 Sep 2017). ↩
- “Code of Conduct/Ethics,” International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (http://www.iajgs.org/ : accessed 27 Sep 2017). ↩
- “Code of Ethics and Conduct,” Board for Certification of Genealogists (http://www.bcgcertification.org : accessed 27 Sep 2017). ↩
- “Code of Ethics and Professional Practices,” Association of Professional Genealogists (http://www.apgen.org : accessed 27 Sep 2017). ↩
I really try to stay inside the lines on this, but then I read something like this, and get nervous.
So, are you saying that when I use information from the Internet (which has been made public) in one of my presentations, it’s not enough to have the source citation right there on the slide (as well as in the bibliography at then end) AND to state the source (i.e. “According to XX, in his book, YY”), even though I have incompletely reworded the information? Please help, because I truly don’t want to be in violation.
As far as photos, I always reach out to the owner if there is no creative license agreement, and, again, I state and label the source of the photos during the presentation. A gray area here, for me, might be charts, though. I used a couple in one of my recent publications, and gave all of the source info etc., but did not reach out to the source to ask if they could be cited. Am I in violation?
Renate, facts can’t be copyrighted. So if what we’re taking from the internet is a fact (John married Mary in 1750), we cite our source but don’t need permission. If we’re using someone’s expression of fact (“John stood straight as a rail, terror on his face, Mary shook by his side as they exchanged vows on a cold day in 1750”), we cite our source AND get permission. And of course for images, permission is required. A chart may have some elements of creativity such as the way facts are chosen or arranged (in which case, get permission) or be strictly factual (in which case source citation may be enough).
Hi Judy! I have copies articles from newspapers that are no longer in business, so there is no one to contact for permission. What should be done in that case? Do I just cite the source and leave it at that?
You’d still need to verify the copyright status before simply using large portions of the newspaper but small portions might be fair use.
The copyrights for many out-of-print historic newspapers have been acquired and renewed by various organizations from current newspapers, to historical societies, to libraries, to the commercial historic newspaper distributors. It’s always safest to search for the copyright owner.
Well, with all due respect, all of those quoted ethics codes say that credit must be given, but none of them say that the use must be requested. There is an exception under U.S. Copyright law that permits “fair use.” Without getting into the esoterica of what that means, generally speaking, a limited use for educational purposes with no commercial value taken from the owner is fair us. I concur that credit to the owner or original source is mandatory but disagree that requests for use are mandatory under all circumstances.
With all due respect, reading a blog post carefully is usually a good idea before commenting. The post doesn’t begins: “It’s generally not okay to take something we find online and simply use it.” There’s a reason why the word “generally” is in that sentence.
May I ask the source of the pictures in your logo? Was permission to use them given? Is permission necessary when using a generic image to convey a specific idea as with the images on your website?
Unless a photo I use is mine, or subject to a paid-for license which expressly does not require attribution, I always cite the images I use. My logo images and almost all blog images are licensed.
Someone once used on his web site part of my father’s self-published genealogy, describing his own presence at the deathbed of a family member. The book was distributed only to family members, and not officially copyrighted. Was it still covered by the law? The guy didn’t identify the person dying, my father, date, or place. The scene therefore made little sense, to say nothing of the fact that he hadn’t asked permission. I know he didn’t, as I asked my father, who told me he hadn’t. I emailed the man more than once, asking him to either retract the “information” or contact my father for permission. I heard nothing, and nothing changed on his web site. Later I learned that he married a distant cousin, which is how he got the information. Since she occasionally showed up at family reunions, I dropped the matter, but I still think his actions were wrong. Were they? Because of this incident, I’ve always put a copyright symbol and year on anything like my father’s book. Should I do this?
Without more information, I can’t say, Doris. The issue would be whether your father’s work was before or after a key change in the law in the 1970s. The actions of not attributing the work were certainly wrong, but whether they were also a copyright violation is one of those “it depends” situations.
My father self-published his book in 1987, based on research he’d been doing for about 15 years. With the unfortunate exception of who loaned him some pictures, he noted where he got his information. He didn’t use the computer for any of it, not being computer literate. Mostly he based it on interviews with the people involved, his own memories, or for people farther back, a copyrighted book on the Waggoner family written in the 1920s, and a similar book on his mother’s family that was published the year after his (That one had no source info, but said in the intro that he was purposely leaving it out so as not to make the book too long and unwieldy. I’ve been able to verify a great deal of this book, but his decision was a mistake. My father used from this book only his mother’s generation and one back; I knew most of these people.) My father didn’t use currently accepted formats for his attributions, but he had, for instance, space in his family group sheets for who gave him the information, and he also referenced this in his narrative. Does that help with whether the use made of my father’s book was a copyright infringement?
If the book (a) was published in 1987, (b) doesn’t have a copyright notice and (c) wasn’t registered with the Copyright Office within five years, then it is not copyright-protected because all of the then-extant conditions for protection weren’t met. See Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States by Peter Hirtle of Cornell.
What about the Ancestry “hints”? They are sometimes photos or photos of documents. When I find something I like on a website I ask for permission to use the photo, etc. But what about the hints?
I always ask permission to use the photos in the hints too, both in my tree and on my blog. And, if I don’t get it, I don’t use it. I’ve seen plenty of people utterly irate that a picture they’ve put on Ancestry was cooped by someone else. Even aside from the legalities (which still apply), I don’t want to start off on a bad foot with someone I’m related to who may have helpful information to share now or in the future.
Nope, the hints are just that: hints that a fact might or might not be true.
Just as an added point, if I understand their T&Cs correctly, what ever media you add to your Ancestry tree, but adding it you care giving Ancestry permission to use it as they wish.
“you grant Ancestry and its Group Companies a non-exclusive, transferable, sublicenseable, world-wide, royalty-free license for the maximum amount of time permitted by applicable law to host, store, copy, publish, distribute, provide access to and otherwise use User Provided Content uploaded or otherwise submitted by you to the Websites”
Ancestry also expressive state “Be aware that copyright and other intellectual property rights will normally vest in the creator of the material in question and you should not reproduce or submit anything without permission of the owner. By submitting User Provided Content to the Websites, you represent that you have the right to do so, and that you have obtained any third party consents where required (e.g., under data protection or intellectual property laws). Upon our request you agree to furnish Ancestry with any documentation, substantiation and releases necessary and reasonably required to verify and substantiate your compliance with this provision.”
(3. User Provided Content. http://www.ancestry.co.uk/cs/legal/termsandconditions#UserContent )
It is not just user uploaded media either, images of documents such census returns and parish registers are also covered, as Ancestry etc. hold the license for them. This is why most professional researchers transcribe documents rather than copying them in the report.
Just because media on Ancestry and other websites it is not fair game. But how many actually read the terms and conditions of these sites when we sign up?
I see the “share” buttons for Facebook, etc here on your post, so is it OK to share this without asking you first?
It is okay to use the share button to share the item that way. It wouldn’t be okay to republish it, in its entirety, somewhere.
And this is why that “Add this person to your tree” button at ancestry is so WRONG.It’s really easy to go to a tree and use that button to build a new tree. No effort, just click Add this person to my tree. And that’s how MY Research got on someone else’s tree as THEIR research.
Toni the same has happened to my research. What I am wondering about is the images. If we put them on there we know they are “fair game”. But I am glad to share some of my photos. I found one of a grtgrtgrandfather I had never seen!
Facts are fair game anywhere. They can’t be copyrighted.
Does this mean that the share function on Facebook is in violation unless the item is a fact? Does it also mean if a comment on a group page is used in a commercial publication such as a monetized blog that it requires permission of the commenter?
The share function is part of the Facebook system, and if you post publicly, you are giving permission for the post to be shared. You can limit any post to friends, or friends of friends, or even a small subset of your friends, or even not allow sharing at all. It’s all in the permissions. But that is on Facebook only. If someone wants to use a Facebook comment off Facebook, they should get permission unless it qualifies as fair use.
I once commissioned a “genealogist” [so-called] to research one of my wife’s family lines. We then created a tree out of his “work” and shared with cousin Doug who we were working closely with on this line. Doug then shared with another cousin what he had dubbed his “working hypothesis”, and that other cousin promptly uploaded it to Ancestry, where it has been repeated over and over and is now seen as gospel truth by people who do not check sources. It has been proved to be more or less hogwash.
The cousin who uploaded it has been contacted and refuses to remove the data from Ancestry.
Meanwhile, what about all the other people who have “stolen” it and put it their trees? All wrong information!
Do we have any recourse?
Our only recourse is to ensure that our own work is good. We can’t control what other people do on their trees, only what we do on our own.
Could we get Ancestry to take this down if we could prove that the facts contained in the tree we shared were arranged/altered (by us/our bogus “professional”) to such a degree that they are not just simply facts, but an irrational arrangement of them? As I said, his research was hogwash, including almost absurd assumptions of various surname variations and locations/migrations, just to establish a “link” to previous generations of people that are quite certainly unrelated.
He really was a charlatan of the type of “genealogist” that seemed to have flourished in the Victorian era.
I’m not so upset at him, as I got what I paid for (a pittance), but with the cousin who deliberately posted it after being told it was crap/untrue/unproven. And now won’t remove it.
Nope, Ancestry isn’t going to get in the middle of a fight over whether somebody’s tree represents good research or not. I repeat: the only tree we can control is our own.
Judy, I support your repeated reminders about copyright. I’m sure I am not perfect and have no legal skills in this area however here are some tips I use to stay help on track. Often I pay for images – YES. You can find inexpensive ones, it is quicker than hunting for free ones out of copyright and I write in the meta data of the image if it is royalty free, paid for, etc and where I found it and any conditions of use. If I find an image on Ancestry (or other places) I write to the person asking if they are the owner, can I use it and how I will be possibly using it now or in the future. I have always had positive responses. In some cases they even contacted the original owner for me and got approval. I accept that people will steal or not credit my photos so I do not publish any photos online that I am not willing to share. Even then I sometimes get annoyed so to the persons that have my great grand fathers grave site photo sorry you got the one with bad light, blurry focus and breaking the thirds rule.
Yep, a poor image or a watermarked one can be used as cousin bait — “contact me and exchange info… and I’ll trade a better clearer copy!” 🙂
Thank you for a great reminder Judy.
If anyone is interested in UK copyright law they can read my blog about it at: http://leavesfamilyhistory.co.uk/research/copyright-and-genealogy
When I post anything to my Ancestry trees, I am happy if someone captures that in their tree. After all, they are probably related or they wouldn’t be interested in it to begin with. I don’t have ownership of that ancestor, so I feel that another relative has as much right to great great granny’s photo as I do. I guess I’ll have to read Ancestry’s permissions again to see if I am doing it right.
The terms absolutely allow anyone to LINK to something someone else posted. What we can’t do is download it and reupload it as if it were our own work.
Hi Judy, thank you for another great post and a reminder to the community on this important topic. I just want to say that I have appreciated a number of individuals who have reached out to me to ask permission to use a photo that I’ve taken or reprint a post that I’ve written. There are so many genealogists who respect the works of others. It’s unfortunate that we must spend time on those who don’t. In the past the genealogy community has been one of respect & sharing. The message of this post must be heard & acted upon to keep it that way. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with all of us!
I am always grateful to those who write and ask for permission, and have only very rarely said no, usually because of a contractual obligation.
I have more than one ‘public’ tree on ‘Ancestry’ and accept that people will copy my research and use my photos. That is why I also have a ‘private’ tree which contains more information that I have paid for – for example by buying a photo permit at a Record Office, paying for translation from Latin or buying a subscription to a newspaper archive. It really annoys me that I am funding someone else’s ‘research’and people don’t even ask permission to use my work to build their own trees.
I understand your thinking, though I’m always happy to share with family members!
A distant cousin provided some photos of shared ancestors to me several years ago. I asked him if I could use them in my blog and he responded VERY rudely that they weren’t his photos, he wasn’t the photographer, and on and on. I thought I was being courteous and told him so and have had no contact with him since. I will still continue to ask permission before I use something but his response sure made me think twice about that approach.
Sigh… nobody can fix rude, but even when someone else is rude we still have to be polite on our side.
Thank you so much for reiterating this. I am a photographer and every day I see posts on Tumblr, Facebook, etc which say “Found on the internet and assumed to be in the public domain.” I realize this is mostly ignorance on the part of the poster, but people, by this time, should really know better. Thanks for your great blog. I don’t see a Facebook share button here on your blog. May I repost it to FB as a direct URL link?
If you cursor down to the bottom of the blog post just above where the comments start, you’ll see the sharing buttons, and one of them is for Facebook. Alternatively, you can always share directly from my Facebook page where every blog post is announced in a public post.
Great blog entry, great topic. What about letters written TO my family, mid-20th century? I have been unable to trace descendants of the letter writers. Do you think it’s OK to scan and post excerpts, transcriptions, or both, using discretion, on my genealogy blog?
You have to make your own decision (or consult a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction) as to whether the specific use you intend qualifies as fair use.
What is the legality if I did all the genealogy work on the family tree, each line with at least three proofs, sharing the information with the living aunts and uncles only, and a cousin has posted it on-line as his own work, as the point of contact; not citing me any credit? I have never posted any of my extensive and documented genealogy on-line. Thank you.
Facts unfortunately can’t be copyrighted, only the way the facts are expressed. So if your cousin “borrowed” the facts you proved, it’s certainly an ethical violation for him to claim it as his work, but not a legal one. If he took your exact words, and you wrote it in a way that shows some small degree of creativity, then it’s a copyright violation.
I am not sure how to handle a copy of a speech that was given in 1972 at a historical marker dedication. The historical commission gave me a copy. I want to reprint the entire speech to be included in a family history. The individual died in 1974. Do I contact a family member requesting permission to use it?
It clearly is covered by copyright (original work in tangible form) so to be 100% safe getting permission from the speaker’s heirs would be necessary.