Copyright requires more
It’s a constant refrain in the world of using other people’s content: “But I gave the author / photographer / artist credit!”
The Legal Genealogist is here to remind us all: that ain’t enough if we’re using materials that are copyright-protected.
I have no idea where the notion came from that we’re free to use anything we want of other people’s work as long as we give them credit for the work, but it’s certainly a pervasive misconception. Operative word there: misconception. It’s not so.
Copyright, in a nutshell, is a bundle of exclusive rights the law gives to the creator of original works. Writers, photographers, artists and others who create so much of the content we’d like to use get a period of time in which they (and then their heirs) are the only ones who get to say, for example, if the work can be copied, and by whom, and under what conditions, or if it can be shared with others, and by whom, and under what conditions.1
Nowhere in the law does it say “but it’s perfectly okay to copy and share it if you give the creator of the work credit.”
Now… don’t get me wrong. As genealogists, we absolutely always want to give credit when we use the work of others. It’s part and parcel of the Genealogical Proof Standard that we provide “complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item” we rely on.2 And our field’s ethics codes require it as well.3
When the materials we’re using are not copyright-protected, then credit is all that’s needed. Materials in the public domain — meaning materials that either never were copyrighted in the first place or where the copyright has expired — “may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”4
But it’s not enough to give credit when we’re using materials that are copyright-protected. Copyright requires more. And the more it usually requires is permission — in the words of the law, a license.
Sometimes, a creator will grant a license on a blanket basis. That’s the way Creative Commons licenses work: as long as we stay within the terms of the license and respect any conditions attached to the license, such as no commercial use or no derivatives, then we don’t have to get the specific permission of the copyright owner.5
In other cases, we’re going to have to ask specifically for the permission we want or need, whether it’s permission to use a photo from Find A Grave in a presentation or permission to copy or republish a blog post from this blog.
Giving the photographer or the blog writer credit will avoid the problem of plagiarism — presenting someone else’s work as if it’s our own6 — but it won’t do a thing to protect us from a copyright infringement action.
Bottom line: credit doesn’t cut it.
If the work we want to use is copyright-protected, our safest bet is to get the creator’s permission to use it.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Credit doesn’t cut it,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 13 Aug 2021).
- See 17 U.S.C. §106, “Exclusive rights in copyrighted works.” See also “What is Copyright?,” U.S. Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/ : accessed 13 Aug 2021). ↩
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2d ed. rev. (Nashville, TN: Ancestry.com, 2021), 1. ↩
- See e.g. ibid., “Genealogist’s Code of Ethics,” at 50. ↩
- See generally “Definitions: Where is the public domain?,” U.S. Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/ : accessed 13 Aug 2021). ↩
- See generally “About CC Licenses,” CreativeCommons.org (https://creativecommons.org/ : accessed 13 Aug 2021). ↩
- See generally Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five ‘Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing,” EvidenceExplained.com ( accessed 13 Aug 2021). ↩