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Ask, don’t take

Once more into the breach, dear friends:

Copying someone else’s work without permission is wrong.

The Legal Genealogist has sung this song before, more than once,1 but — like the mole in the whack-a-mole game — the issue keeps raising its head.

So let’s set the record straight one more time: it’s generally not okay to take something we find online and simply use it.

copyright infringement

A colleague in the genealogical community mentioned this morning that genealogical information assembled by that colleague and posted in a blog had been copied — word-for-word — and reposted in another genealogy blog. There’s no real question that the information as assembled is protected by copyright: it’s the original work of the poster and even involves translation from another language — something that always involves that spark of creativity that copyright requires.

When challenged on the use of the information, the reposting blogger said attribution would be added.

Folks, no.

Just no.

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 interesting bit of information assembled by another researcher. We want to pass these things around freely.

After all, we’re just sharing, right?


Taking someone else’s work and using it ourselves — whether or not it’s for commercial gain — isn’t sharing.

It’s theft.

Sure, we can wrap it up in fancy words like “plagiarism”: “taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”2 And it is surely that when we make no effort to credit the person who did all the research and all the hard work. 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 images.

And it’s wrong.

It violates the law.4

And it violates every ethics code our community has:

• The National Genealogical Society’s Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others notes that “genealogists and family historians … observe meticulously the legal rights of copyright owners, copying or distributing any part of their works only with their permission, or to the limited extent specifically allowed under the law’s ‘fair use’ exceptions.”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. … 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. 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 “Refrain from violating … copyright” and “Give proper credit to the work of others and refrain from plagiarism.”7

• 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… Researchers must refrain from plagiarism and respect copyrights.”8

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.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Using the work of others,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 4 Feb 2020).


  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Don’t just take!!!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Sep 2017 ( : accessed 4 Feb 2020).
  2. Lexico Powered by Oxford ( : accessed 4 Feb 2020), “plagiarism.”
  3. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 27 Sep 2017), “infringement (of copyright).”
  4. See 17 U.S. Code § 501, “Infringement of copyright.”
  5. National Genealogical Society, Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others, PDF ( : accessed 4 Feb 2020).
  6. Genealogist’s Code of Ethics,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 4 Feb 2020).
  7. Code of Ethics and Professional Practices,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 4 Feb 2020).
  8. Code of Conduct/Ethics,” International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies ( : accessed 4 Feb 2020).
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