Ask, don’t just take
It was one of those obituaries that a genealogist just loves to read.
“I was born,” it began. “I blinked and it was over.”
Beautifully written by Emily DeBrayda Fisher Phillips, who died in Florida in 2015 just 28 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,1 this obituary was called to the attention of The Legal Genealogist yesterday by Emily’s daughter.2
It’s warm, it’s witty, it’s what we all hope we might think to say if we too were facing our own mortality just a heartbeat away.
It was a gift from Emily to her family and friends, written the day she was diagnosed, and published when she lost that terrible last battle with cancer.
And it’s been stolen.
Over and over, the words have been robbed from Emily DeBrayda Fisher Phillips and her family.
Stolen by people who didn’t say where the words came from.
Stolen by some in a moment of their own grief when, perhaps, they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.
Stolen by others who should have known better.
Stolen sometimes with the best of intentions.
But stolen nonetheless.
Robbed from the dead, and from her family, in violation of every ethical and legal rule.3
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.”4 And it is surely that when we make no effort to credit the person who penned the words in the first place.
Or we could term it copyright infringement : “The unauthorized use of a work that violates the owners’ copyrights (their rights to exclusive use of the work).”5 And that’s what it is when we take someone else’s legally-protected work — words or photos or video or audio recording — without getting their permission or, in this case, the permission of those who inherited the copyright.
But to put it bluntly, what we’re talking about here is theft — in this case robbing from the dead — and it’s wrong.
Emily’s family is handling this in a classy way. They’ve put up a website where they remind people that:
We understand that in times of grief, folks may struggle to find the perfect words to celebrate their loved one. We get it. We really do.
But every person has value. Every person has a story. An obituary, whether self-penned or written by a family member or perhaps written by a funeral home staffer, is a final love letter to loved ones. Rather than plagiarizing this one, please instead use it as inspiration for your family’s needs. Honor and remember your loved ones for the special person that they were. Emily would want that.6
And if any of us really really want to borrow some of Emily’s words, the family has a classy way of handling that too: they have a contact button on the website where we can send a message with our request.
And, they promise, “We will provide detailed instructions on how to properly give attribution and provide written permission to you/your family to use the portions you’ve requested.”7
In this as in all cases of using the original works of another person, we’re free to ask, but not simply to take.
Doing anything less in this case is robbing from the dead.
- See Jim Schoettler, “‘I was born; I blinked; and it was over,’ Orange Park woman writes in own obituary,” Jacksonville Times, posted 1 Apr 2015 (http://www.jacksonville.com/ : accessed 10 May 2018). ↩
- Bonnie Phillips Upright, comment to “Copyright and the obit,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Sep 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 10 May 2018). ↩
- See World’s Best Obituary (https://www.bestobituary.com/ : accessed 10 May 2018). ↩
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 10 May 2018), “plagiarism.” ↩
- Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 10 May 2018), “infringement (of copyright).” ↩
- World’s Best Obituary (https://www.bestobituary.com/ : accessed 10 May 2018). ↩
- Ibid. ↩