Select Page

Listen to the speaker instead

It happened again last week at the New York State Family History Conference.

The rules of the conference were crystal clear: no photographing the slides without the express consent of the speaker (note: and this post intends no criticism at all of the conference or its organizers). The speaker in this particular lecture had made his own rules clear: one or two photos for social media were fine, but nothing more.

He’d even gone so far as to put up a slide saying no photographing the slides.

And yet, as The Legal Genealogist could see from a perch in the back of the room, there was that attendee, happily raising his cellphone and taking photos of the slides.

Every single slide.

Not one.

Not two.

Every. Single. Slide.

Taking photos of slides

Folks, I’ve said this before1 but let me repeat it in no uncertain terms:

This is Not Okay.

It’s not okay to use your cellphone or your tablet to record every word a genealogical speaker says in a lecture.

It’s not okay to take pictures of every slide (or even any of the slides without express permission).

And it’s not okay to take the handout prepared for the lecture and reproduce it to share it with others.

What the lecturer has — with respect to the lecture itself, the slides used to illustrate the lecture on the screen, and the handout — is a copyright.

And when that conference attendee photographed or copy the lecturer’s work, what he did isn’t okay — it’s a copyright violation.

Copyright under United States law exists the minute the lecturer prepares that lecture: the text, the slides, the handout are all covered the instant they exist in some tangible form.2

It’s not necessary for the lecturer to register the copyright in the U.S. Copyright Office.3

It’s not necessary for the lecturer to make an announcement that the lecture is copyright-protected or to include a copyright statement (or that little © symbol) on the slides or on the handout.4

All that’s necessary is that the work be the original work of the person creating it and that it be in some tangible form — which includes even a digital file that exists nowhere except on the lecturer’s computer hard drive.5

And once it exists in that format, the lecturer owns the copyright for the lecturer’s lifetime — and the lecturer’s estate or heirs own it for another 70 years after the lecturer’s death.6

That original work of the lecturer is the lecturer’s intellectual property. It’s no different from any other type of copyrighted material. It’s hard work to produce a good lecture — it takes many hours of research and many more hours of fighting with the programs we use to produce the presentation — and it gets the same protection as a book or a movie or any other creative endeavor.

If that conference goer sat in a movie theater and taped the movie, and then shared it with his friends, the studio that produced the movie could — and would — sue him for at least the statutory damages provided for in the law: up to $150,000 for a single violation if a court were to find that the violation was willful and up to $30,000 otherwise.7

He faces exactly the same penalty if he sits in a lecture and tapes it or photographs it or copies the handout and share that with his friends. And keep in mind that the societies that put together conferences and publish the syllabus materials in book or booklet form or as a downloadable PDF file have a compilation copyright in the entire book/booklet or file.8

The same goes for a webinar or other presentation that’s videotaped or audiotaped: it’s all under copyright. And just as buying the book doesn’t give us the right to copy it and give copies to our friends, buying a lecture tape (audio or video) doesn’t give us the right to copy that and share it with our friends either.

It’s not just that it’s legally wrong; it’s ethically wrong too. The ethical standards of our field are clear about this point as well.9

So no, folks, actually, it’s not okay to simply take a lecturer’s work. If you want to copy any part of a lecture, or the lecturer’s handout, ask for permission. And if the lecturer is kind enough to grant permission, stay within the scope of the permission granted (as an example, if the lecturer says it’s okay to use one photo, it means one photo).

Getting permission, and staying within the terms of what the lecturer permits, is the right thing — and the legal thing — to do.

Put the cellphone down.

Listen to the speaker instead.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Copyright and the genealogy lecture,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 Feb 2015 ( : accessed 18 Sep 2018).
  2. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1: Copyright Basics, PDF version at 1 ( : accessed 18 Sep 2018) (“Copyright is a form of protection provided by U.S. law to authors of ‘original works of authorship’ from the time the works are created in a fixed form. Copyright protection in the United States exists automatically from the moment the original work of authorship is fixed”).
  3. Ibid. at 4 (“registering a work is not mandatory, for
    works of U.S. origin”).
  4. Ibid. (“Applying a copyright notice to a work has not been required since March 1, 1989”).
  5. See 17 U.S.C. § 101 (“Definitions: fixed”).
  6. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1: Copyright Basics PDF version at 4 (“the term of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death”).
  7. See 17 U.S.C. § 504(c) (“Statutory damages”).
  8. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 14: Copyright in Derivative Works and Compilations, PDF version at 1 ( : accessed 18 Sep 2018).
  9. See e.g. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogist’s Code of Ethics ( : accessed 18 Sep 2018) (“I will not reproduce for public dissemination, in an oral or written fashion, the work of another genealogist, writer, or lecturer without that person’s written consent”).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email