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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.

It’s theft.

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.

It’s theft.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017), “plagiarism.”
  2. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017).
  3. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017), “infringement (of copyright).”
  4. National Genealogical Society, Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others, PDF ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017).
  5. Code of Conduct/Ethics,” International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017).
  6. Code of Ethics and Conduct,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017).
  7. “Code of Ethics and Professional Practices,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017).
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