Friday, January 26, 2007

Copyright and Fair Use

A post by "Canterbury5" at has summarized the current copyright provisions, and how they've developed, based on the US government information at It is extremely complicated, and has changed often over the years. I thought I would explain how I'm trying to apply the provisions below.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I occasionally excerpt lines or paragraphs from newspaper articles or web sites. I try to capture the essence of the work, and link to the source. I use my judgment as to how much is "fair use" and have had no complaints yet.

In my own genealogy research, I have transcribed whole pages from pre-1900 published works into my ancestral database notes, and as far as I can tell, I'm allowed to do so. But I've struggled to apply "fair use" to more modern works, especially those multi-ancestor works that address more than one ancestor of mine.

For example, the multi-volume work "The Great Migration Begins," and the subsequent multi-volume work "The Great Migration, 1634-1635," all edited by Robert Charles Anderson and published by NEHGS, have numerous "sketches" of ancestors of mine. Each sketch uses original sources with primary information, some of which are difficult to find. They summarize the English origins, immigration, spouses, children and life events of each person. They are marvelous works. So how do I deal with that?

At present, I try to do the following in my notes:

1) Clearly credit the Anderson books with providing leads to original sources and primary information.

2) Attempt to find the original source material (almost always on microfilm from the FHL) and copy it.

3) Use my own words to summarize the original source material, or quote it directly, and cite the source completely.

I think that this is acceptable, but I haven't tried to explain it before or ask the author or publisher if that would be acceptable. I have not successfully completed my three steps above for many of my own ancestors - the notes in the database parrot Anderson's sketches until I have the chance to find the original source material and modify my notes appropriately.

I have self-published some of my work, and have provided copies of it on paper and CDROM, but only to my family. I hope to finish my work at some time and place books in local and genealogy libraries. At present, my sources are embedded in my database notes rather than in a source citation format, and I'm slowly trying to correct that, but it is difficult with thousands of ancestors in my database (I'm not complaining, of course, that I'm blessed with New England ancestry).

I often think "if only I knew then what I know now" I would have cited sources, found more primary source information, etc. over the first 10 years of my ancestral search and database entry!

What do you think? Are my three steps above satisfactory? How have you addressed this issue?


Anonymous said...

Always a hot topic, but I was glad to just read your posting. I'm no expert at that by any means and, in fact, seem to have adopted a very similar approach to you. My 2 cents...I think you've taken 'reasonable steps' to show that you are not intentionally violating the rights of anyone holding a copyright.
Dan Lynch

Steve Danko said...

It seems that you've actually addressed two potential problems here: copyright and plagarism. Even if a work is out of copyright, summarizing the material in your own words or quoting it directly and citing the source are necessary to avoid plagarism issues.

Craig Manson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Manson said...

(Corrected Version) Without giving legal advice (I point that out because I am an active California lawyer), I tend to agree with the other commenters here, Randy. A person is permitted to cite other works in the course of his own research; otherwise, there would be no effective transmission of knowledge. It's worthwhile to take a look at the U.S. Copyright Office's materials on "fair use," some of which may be found at